Christmas commutations skipped again Glendening received no recommendations from parole panel

Tradition 'may be over'

Nonviolent offenders more likely to serve in alternative programs

December 25, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

For the second year in a row, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has no Christmas miracle for state prisoners hoping to get home for the holidays.

Glendening has decided not to grant any traditional "Christmas commutations," which for decades in Maryland have been issued during the holiday season, most recently to minor criminals within a few months of release.

Raymond C. Feldmann, a Glendening spokesman, said the governor was taking no action because he had received no recommendations from the Maryland Parole Commission for commutations. And he said that wasn't surprising -- it's evidence, he said, of the state's success in channeling nonviolent offenders into alternative programs.

"A lot of those people were the people who in previous years would be eligible for commutations," he said.

Intermediate sanctions for criminals -- short of an expensive prison bed but more intensive than regular parole supervision -- have been used for several years under a state program called Correctional Options.

Using an array of programs from day reporting to home detention to drug treatment, that program -- which affects mostly drug-dependent offenders -- has been touted by public safety officials as the most effective way to reserve prison beds for murderers, robbers and rapists while treating the underlying conditions that prompt drug addicts to steal and deal. The program has 2,600 inmates.

Not all nonviolent offenders qualify, because of violence in their past or an inability to handle a highly structured program.

"Considering the number of offenders going into the Options program, the day of the traditional Christmas commutation may be over," said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for the state corrections system. "That's not to say the governor wouldn't commute sentences during Christmas. But this is a dramatically different correctional system than just a few years ago."

Last year, the governor announced he would not approve parole for murderers or rapists with life sentences except for the very old or terminally ill. Several months later, when it was time for the annual Christmas commutations, the Parole Commission sent no candidates.

M. Beverly Nur of the Maryland Prison Renewal Committee, a group supporting inmates and their families and friends, called the lack of commutations a political ploy that ignores how crowded Maryland prisons are.

"I know he campaigned on a platform that he was going to be tough on crime, and this is part of it," Nur said. "You still have a lot of people there that are nonviolent offenders. I think it's a political thing where he said he's going to be hard on crime.

"For most inmates, Christmas is a difficult time because of family. Especially inmates who have kids. They want Daddy home. And if Daddy's not a violent offender and a first-timer, it would be good if Daddy could come home."

During the 1970s, governors eager to ease prison crowding were generous with Christmas commutations, granting early release to more than 500 inmates a year. Then-Gov. Harry Hughes curbed that practice in 1981 in response to an uproar over prison policies, limiting the commutations to inmates who were within six months of release.

Pub Date: 12/25/96

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