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Who will stay, who will go free? The question at the heart of a parole commissioner’s job

David R. Blumberg, chairman of the Maryland Parole Commission, in one of his signature jackets on a visit to the women’s prison in Jessup. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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The inmate in gray sweatpants and shirt fidgeted in the hall, hands quivering before she could pass along her note pleading for another shot at early release.

In a nearby conference room, an inmate took deep breaths, bracing to hear whether she would soon be set free despite her life sentence.

Both awaited David R. Blumberg, the long-serving chairman of the Maryland Parole Commission.

Most days, he is making life-changing decisions for many of the 3,000 or so Maryland prisoners typically released on parole each year.

But he’s also a man whose recommendations most governors haven’t heeded when it comes to lifers.

During more than 15 years on the commission, Blumberg has advised three governors, from both political parties. During that time, prisoners have received life terms with the possibility they could be paroled if the governor signed off — and Blumberg’s commission has recommended release in some cases. But in that time, governors have rarely agreed.

The life sentence he got as a teen came with a chance at parole. But is it a real chance?

While that kind of track record might frustrate many, Blumberg is unflaggingly upbeat, even as Maryland’s parole system is being targeted in a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s parole system and questioning whether it offers a meaningful chance at freedom for inmates who committed crimes as juveniles.

Maryland is one of only three states that require the governor’s sign-off on parole board recommendations to release inmates serving life terms. Legislation introduced in Annapolis would take the chief executive out of the process.

“We all have different positions,” Blumberg said. “I don’t second-guess any governor. That’s not my role.”

He sees parallels between his role and that of a judge. Blumberg relies on set guidelines about when parole can be granted but also must account for the un­predictable human element.

And after hearing thousands of cases, he still recalls details of one where he says his gut instinct let him down and another that didn’t go his way.

He knows mistakes happen, Blumberg said, which is why, “You say to yourself, ‘I hope I’m doing the right thing.’ ”

A colorful figure

Blumberg is a man seemingly at ease with standing out.

Start with his blazers.

They aren’t loud, they scream: shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day, Stars of David for Hannukah, bold colors and patterns for everyday wear.

Blumberg, now 61, began his career in prison work in the early 1980s, running the library in the Baltimore jail. He did that for two decades.

Prison, he quickly saw, was a gray and sapping setting, and he decided his jackets would be an antidote. The wardrobe decision means Blumberg, who is color blind, has to schedule FaceTime with his wife, Ellie Wang, when­ever she is out of town so she can tell him whether his outfit matches.

At the jail library — Baltimore’s smallest, but a highly popular branch — Blumberg encountered thousands of inmates who leaned on him for legal advice.

The son of a librarian and a university administrator, Blumberg knew he would spend a career among books after graduating from Loyola University and graduate school at University of Maryland. But his interest in politics and an internship with Federal Maritime Commissioner Helen Delich Bentley, later a long-
serving Republican congresswoman, would lead him into political spheres. For 16 years, Blumberg headed the Republican Party in overwhelmingly Democratic Baltimore.

He was not an obvious choice when former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whom he knew through the GOP circles, named the jail librarian to a six-year-term on the parole board.

Two more governors reappointed him as chairman — Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, and, in 2016, Republican Larry Hogan.

“Everybody trusts him, and that’s a pretty valuable and rare commodity in politics today,” said Robert F. Scholz, Hogan’s chief counsel and a graduate of Friends School, Blumberg’s high school.

Former Md. governor says he was wrong to deny “lifers” early release

As a teenager, Blumberg had one of his earliest encounters with crime when another teen robbed him. Blumberg chased the robber, who was caught and sentenced to 18 months.

It was an unjust outcome, in the mind of Blumberg’s now-
deceased father, Stanley.

The family of the teen could not afford a private attorney, so Stanley paid for a lawyer in a court appeal that got the jail time suspended.

Blumberg felt his father’s intervention preempted the court system. His feeling was reinforced when the teen later ended up in prison for another crime.

Sitting now as the head of the commission that weighs releases, Blumberg describes having to balance those considerations.

About 97 percent of inmates will eventually be released, he said, and prisons should not be about “warehousing” people. “If you’re not giving them any tools to succeed, how are you expecting them to be better when they get out?

“There has to be a punishment, but we have to give them opportunities,” he added.

As an attorney, Robert Cole appears regularly before Blumberg and doesn’t always agree with the outcome. But the chairman, Cole said, is up to speed, listens closely and is so responsive that he returns emails at all hours.

“It’s not assembly-line justice. It’s thoughtful, considered. He knows the facts,” Cole said.

Even Democrats working to change the process — and highly critical of it — are fans of Blumberg because of his accessibility and dedication.

“I’m not fond of the parole system, but I’m fond of him,” said Mary Joel Davis, whose nonprofit group provides legal help for women sentenced to life.

Cases of regret

Guards greet him as “Mr. Commissioner” as he enters the women’s lockup in Jessup. Inmates point him out.

Many already have heard about the suits, but less commonly known, at least in the prisons where he spends two or three days a week, is Blumberg’s part ownership of a racehorse and collection of memorabilia connected to the 1940s film noir actress Lizabeth Scott.

Blumberg responds loudly and warmly as he walks the sterile halls, stopping to pet one of the service dogs being trained by inmates and unfazed when the pup licks his polished red leather shoes.

Among the 10 appointed commissioners, Blumberg is the expert, fluent in the peculiar foreign language of parole.

Inmates with a life sentence must serve at least 15 years before being considered for parole. To reach the recommendations they send to the governor, commissioners review records, interview prisoners and notify victims.

Blumberg and his colleagues also decide what happens when former inmates break supervisory rules after release, including whether they need to return for the balance left on their original sentence.

Blumberg cannot discuss the ongoing lawsuit. As head of the commission, he is named, along with the governor and other state officials, as a defendant.

But one argument made against changing the system is that governors have commuted some life sentences — rather than use parole — to reduce punishment to a set term of years and allow release of a qualifying inmate by the board.

Blumberg said that for lifers, commutation is preferable because it doesn’t leave hanging the threat of a return to life in prison for a violation of release conditions.

Which is the threat that followed Gordon Contee, in one of the pair of cases Blumberg said linger in his mind.

Contee, an African American, was convicted in the 1950s of raping a white woman with whom Contee said he was having a consensual relationship. He was granted parole by former governor Marvin Mandel in the 1970s, according to state records.

But after he was convicted on a minor drug charge in the 1980s, he was brought back to state prison for what was supposed to be the remainder of his life term from the 1950s case.

By 2008, Blumberg thought Contee was an ideal candidate for release after what Blumberg saw as Contee’s initial racially charged life sentence. Blumberg wrote a lengthy letter to O’Malley, who was then governor, advocating parole and backed by the unanimous recommendation of the parole board.

The governor rejected the recommendation without explanation, Blumberg said.

Contee was released at age 80 in 2016, aided by a court ruling.

Blumberg said the other case that stayed with him involved an inmate serving a life term for murder in an arson. The prisoner so persuaded Blumberg of his innocence that Blumberg took the unusual step of asking for a polygraph test to help in his parole hearing during Ehrlich’s term.

The inmate “had me convinced he was set up,” Blumberg said. “I usually read people very well.”

The test showed the inmate lying.

Upset and embarrassed, Blumberg hasn’t asked for a polygraph since.

Extending a second chance

On the day Denise Dodson sat waiting in a conference room at Jessup in February, she had been locked up for 25 years. She was convicted of conspiracy and attempted murder after her boyfriend shot a man who was trying to rape her.

Dodson already had been told that Hogan had commuted her life sentence to a set term of 40 years.

But it was up to Blumberg and a colleague to decide whether she merited parole and a release date on that shortened sentence.

Blumberg seated Dodson between himself and the other commissioner and read aloud from her criminal past.

He moved to her stellar prison record. She was a premier trainer of service dogs and had completed college-level courses with high praise from professors. At 53, she is the grandmother to six.

Flanked by the commissioners, Dodson waited, barely moving.

She would be released in two weeks, Blumberg told her.

“Please make the most of this second chance,” he said. “We have a lot of confidence in you.”

Dodson wiped tears from behind her glasses. “I feel blessed,” she told him.

Blumberg told Dodson to take it slowly before immersing herself in a much-changed world — advice he’s given before to inmates on the brink of freedom.

“It’s not necessarily going to be an even road,” he said

Blumberg scribbled down his direct office number and handed it to her. Once the shock wore off, he knew she would have more questions.

Blumberg began to extend his hand, but Dodson leaned in — and hugged him.

Magda Jean-Louis and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

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