Assembly: Governor must act on lifer parole requests

O'Malley 'inclined to support' legislation, aide says

April 08, 2011|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

The House of Delegates has joined the Senate in demanding that the governor act on recommendations by the state parole commission to free inmates serving life sentences.

The House voted Friday to give the governor six months to deny a parole recommendation by the commission. Under the legislation, if the governor does not file an objection before the deadline, the inmate would be freed automatically.

Lawmakers took up the measure earlier this year in frustration that Gov. Martin O'Malley had not acted on any of the 50 parole or commutation recommendations pending during his four-plus years in office. He has since denied commutations to seven inmates.

Some lawmakers considered taking the governor out of the process altogether. Maryland is one of just three states that require the approval of the governor before an inmate sentenced to life in prison may be paroled.

The legislation approved by the House on Friday would keep the governor involved in the process.

The seven recommendations denied by O'Malley in March involved commutations, not parole. The legislation is silent as to how quickly the governor must act on commutations, which convert life sentences to a period of years for which the inmate can accumulate good-time credits and eventually gain automatic release.

The legislation does not apply to inmates serving life without parole, a sentencing option that has been on the books since 1987.

The legislation requires an inmate sentenced to life with the possibility of parole to have served at least 25 years — without the benefit of good-time credit — and be recommended for parole by the parole commission.

Seven of the 43 release requests still under review by O'Malley are for parole; the remaining 36 are for commutations.

In debating the matter on Friday, delegates revisited the philosophical issue of whether the authority to release a lifer should rest with the parole commission, which is appointed by the governor, or the elected governor himself or herself. California and Oklahoma are the other states that require a governor's signature for the release of a lifer.

"It should be a political process," argued Del. Michael A. McDermott, an Eastern Shore Republican and longtime police officer. "It should be resting on somebody's head."

Del. C.T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat, urged colleagues to vote against the bill. As a prosecutor, he said, he has offered plea deals of life in prison knowing that the convict would be released only if he or she could convince the governor to agree to it.

"Justice applies to everyone, even the victim," he said.

Bill supporters said the parole process for lifers is "broken."

Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons said the legislation "attempts to fix a problem in the system."

"The governor is simply ignoring the responsibilities by failing to act," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

An O'Malley spokesman said the governor believes "the system as it stands works."

But "the General Assembly has a role in this process, as well, and they've decided that a time limit will help improve the process," said Shaun Adamec. "The governor will review the legislation, but is inclined at this point to support it."

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