Shellenberger: Governor needs to be involved in parole for 'lifers'

February 02, 2011

I read with great interest Dan Rodricks' commentary of "Taking politics out of parole" (Jan. 29). In his 600-word essay, only once did Mr. Rodricks make a passing mention of the most important word in the criminal justice system — "victim." Only once did the commentary use the word "punishment," which is one of the fundamental goals for imposing a criminal sentence and thus, making our communities safer.

I view the need for the governor to sign off on the parole of a "lifer" not as putting politics in the parole system but as a way of making sure that the person who makes the weighty decision of when a lifer is released is a person directly accountable to the citizens of this state.

In Maryland, a defendant can receive a life sentence for first degree murder, first degree rape, first degree sex offense and a few other serious crimes. In reality, few defendants receive this sentence and, therefore, it is usually imposed for a basic and very good reason — it was the appropriate punishment for the crime committed.

As the state's attorney for Baltimore County, every day I and my assistants are asked by the victims of crime, "How much of the sentence just imposed will the defendant actually have to serve?" We can never answer that question because Maryland does not have truth in sentencing. Between the accumulation of good time credits, diminution credits and parole eligibility, how long a defendant will actually spend in jail is a mystery. In fact, the Federal system has already recognized this shortcoming and does not have any parole at all. At least when it came to a life sentence for first degree murder, I have been able to look into the eyes of the victim's family members and say, "life means life" in this state, unless the governor approves of the release. Since 1995, it has brought great solace to the surviving family members. If the legislature passes Senate Bill 172, which would remove the governor from the process, I will not even be able to say "life means life" for murder.

I agree, let's keep politics out of the parole system, but let's ensure that when paroling the most serious offenders, the person making this decision is a person who is accountable to the citizens of this state. When the governor respects the will of the people, that is not politics.

Scott D. Shellenberger, Towson

The writer is state's attorney for Baltimore County.

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