Don't end Md. parole, panel says Commission finds no abuse of process in state prisons

'We don't think that's wise'

Members recommend stricter sentences in some instances

December 09, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

After nearly three years of study prompted by public dismay with the criminal justice system, a commission has concluded that Maryland should not end parole for inmates as part of a move to a "truth-in-sentencing" approach.

The commission is urging that judges impose stricter sentences in some cases and is proposing that more alternatives to prison be found for nonviolent offenders.

It also will call on Gov. Parris N. Glendening to reconsider his blanket refusal to grant parole to inmates serving life sentences, saying such an approach does not take into account individual circumstances.

Fueling the group's vote against a move to abolish parole is the staggering cost of building and maintaining the new prison cells that would be required.

In a key decision, the panel of judges, lawyers, legislators and victim advocates found that parole -- despite public misgivings -- plays a valuable role in the criminal justice system and was not being abused in Maryland, members said.

"Obviously, some people wanted to get rid of parole," said commission chairman John F. McAuliffe, a retired Maryland Court of Appeals judge. "We don't want to do that. We don't think that's wise."

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a key legislator on criminal justice issues and a member of the commission, added: "I think we had a full and complete study of the system. It almost comes down to, 'If it's not broke, don't fix it.' "

The commission is expected to finish its work Friday and present a final report to the General Assembly by the end of the month.

The creation of the panel in 1996 by Glendening and the legislature was considered by some at the time as a precursor to the elimination of parole for many or all state inmates.

Instead, the group has embraced a series of other changes in the criminal justice system.

The commission is recommending that judges follow voluntary sentencing guidelines more often to lengthen sentences some inmates serve.

The panel also is pushing for the establishment of an ambitious "corrections options" program that would place offenders in highly restricted programs instead of in jail cells.

The idea of ending parole foundered under opposition from corrections officials and concern about the cost of constructing additional prisons to accommodate inmates' longer terms.

State prison officials estimated it would cost as much as $500 million to build the prison space that would be required by the elimination of parole. The state also would have to increase its corrections budget to operate those prisons by $100 million or more a year, officials estimated.

A proposal to require violent offenders to serve at least 60 percent of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole -- instead of the current 50 percent -- also was rejected by the commission largely because of cost concerns, members said.

Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, who sponsored the legislation that created the commission three years ago and served as a member, said he was disappointed that far-reaching proposals to scale back parole were rejected.

Such changes are needed, McCabe said, to overcome the public's "terrible lack of faith in the criminal justice system."

"I'm not sure whether this incremental approach will really adjust the perception of the people that the criminal justice system needs to be tougher on the violent criminals," said McCabe, a Howard County Republican.

The commission's conclusions will likely preclude serious debate the issue of scaling back parole in the 90-day General Assembly session which begins next month, legislators said.

Ray Feldmann, a spokesman for Glendening, said the administration would wait to see the panel's final report before commenting on its recommendations.

In defending the parole system, state officials point out that a violent offender will, on average, serve more prison time in Maryland than in all but six other states, according to federal statistics.

The average violent offender in Maryland serves about 60 percent of his sentence, state officials said. Nationally, the average was 46 percent, federal statistics show.

The commission found that the number of violent offenders leaving prison on parole in Maryland has steadily decreased in the past decade.

In 1987, 758 inmates convicted of violent crimes were paroled. Last year, 344 such inmates were paroled though the inmate population had ballooned from about 13,000 to 21,000 in that 10-year period, prison officials said.

"We're one of the toughest states around," said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Baltimore Democrat and a commission member. "Those people who want to throw law-and-order rhetoric around don't have much to yell at here in Maryland."

Commission members also were sympathetic to the concerns of prison officials, who favor keeping a parole system to motivate inmates to behave better.

In addition, said Vallario, a Prince George's County Democrat, parole "gives a chance for the parole commission to look at cases that appear to be uneven or unfair with respect to sentencings."

One recommendation likely to win final approval by the commission will be a call for judges to comply with voluntary sentencing guidelines in 70 percent of cases.

Judges hand down sentences within the guidelines in about 50 percent of cases, officials said. In many other cases, judges agree to negotiated arrangements in which a lesser sentence is given in exchange for a guilty plea.

The commission is also calling on Glendening to reconsider his policy to deny parole to anyone serving a life sentence. McAuliffe said many lifers are so old they pose no risk to society and should have their parole requests considered on an individual basis.

"We begin paying through the nose for geriatric inmates who frankly, don't pose a danger to society," he said.

Pub Date: 12/09/98

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