Take the governor out of parole

Our view: With 50 recommendations on O'Malley's desk, the system is clearly broken

March 15, 2011

For a governor, the politics of parole are terrible. Just ask Mike Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor faced tough questions in his run for president three years ago about his role in the release of Wayne DuMond, a convicted rapist who went on to rape and murder at least one other person, and if he ever gets closer to the presidency, you can bet Mr. Huckabee will face attack ads that make the infamous Willie Horton spot look soft. It is at least in part the legacy of that advertisement attacking former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis that has made ambitious governors — particularly Democrats — wary of anything that makes them look soft on crime.

In Maryland, the trend is pretty clear. Former Gov. Marvin Mandel allowed parole for 92 convicts with life sentences; Harry R. Hughes, 64; William Donald Schaefer, 36; Parris Glendening, six (and all for medical reasons); Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., six.

And then comes Gov. Martin O'Malley, who made his name as a tough-on-crime Baltimore mayor — and who faced relentless political attacks from Mr. Ehrlich during their 2006 race about whether he was really as tough as he claimed. The Maryland Parole Commission has sent 50 recommendations to the governor — seven for parole of lifers, and 43 for commutations of sentences to terms that would allow release because of good-time credits. Not only has Mr. O'Malley not granted any, he hasn't even responded to a single one.

If the governor wants to practice an even stricter version of the "life means life" policy Mr. Glendening adopted, he should say so. A spokesman says that is not the case but that the governor is simply giving all due consideration to the cases. If so, he needs to devote a lot more resources to the cause, because he's had plenty of time; the first nine cases were sent to him in March 2007.

The public often has little sympathy for convicts serving life sentences who are waiting for parole decisions. After all, they committed terrible crimes — most often, first-degree murder — to get in that position in the first place. But effectively eliminating the possibility of parole, whether as a matter of policy or by default, fundamentally changes the nature of the sentences the inmates were given. If judges had meant to give them life without the possibility of parole, they would have done so.

Lawmakers in the House of Delegates and state Senate are considering two different ideas for how to deal with the issue. The House has already passed legislation that would cause a parole recommendation to go into effect after 90 days unless the governor objects, and the Senate is considering a proposal that would take the governor out of the process altogether. Mr. O'Malley has taken a position in opposition to the Senate bill and is considering the House legislation.

The House proposal would be an improvement on the process in that it would at least force the governor to go on record supporting or opposing parole in individual cases, but the legislature would do better to pass a version of the Senate's proposal. It would put Maryland in line with the vast majority of states, where decisions about parole are handled entirely by an independent, professional parole board. Only California and Oklahoma have systems like Maryland's. In the other states, governors retain the power to intervene with extraordinary actions like pardons and commutations, but they do not have the ability to serve as a bottleneck in the process.

The Senate bill, however, should be amended to deal both with parole and with commutations of sentences. A recommendation to parole calls for the immediate or scheduled release of a prisoner. A commutation recommendation changes the terms of the sentence — say, from life to a specific number of years. Commutation can have the same effect as parole, depending on the number of years an inmate has already served and on the accumulation of good-time credits, but it is legally distinct. The Senate bill doesn't deal with commutations, but they make up most of the backlog.

Supporters of Maryland's system say that the governor should be held accountable for the release of prisoners; if he makes a bad decision and a paroled inmate goes out to offend again, they say, he should suffer the political consequences. But realistically, he would even if his formal role were removed from the process. After all, the governor appoints the parole board. (And notably, the fact that Arkansas offers no formal role for the governor in the parole process hasn't stopped Mr. Huckabee from being tarnished by the case of Mr. DuMond; nor did the fact that Mr. Dukakis neither started Massachusetts' furlough program nor intervened personally in Mr. Horton's case shield him from blame.)

Decisions about whether a prisoner should be freed after decades behind bars should not be based on politics, but leaving an elected official ultimately in charge inevitably has that effect. Critics of Maryland's criminal justice system often complain that there needs to be more truth in sentencing, in that by virtue of good-time credits and other mechanisms, convicts can return to the street earlier than their original punishments would suggest. But that cuts both ways. If a sentence allows for the possibility of parole, that possibility needs to be a real one, and not just the promise that a file will collect dust on the governor's desk.

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