O'Malley's calculated indifference toward parole

Gov. O'Malley refuses to sign a law that would force him to deal with lifers approved for release

May 21, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

On the matter of parole for convicted killers, Americans generally split into two camps, each grounded in their own morality and common sense — "Yes, sometimes" and "No, never." Here's how I would describe the two campers:

"No, never": You are moderate to conservative in your political views; you believe killers should be sentenced to life, and that no governor or parole board should change the sentence imposed by a trial judge. Many of you support the death penalty; some of you oppose it as impractical and costly, but you all support truth in sentencing: Life means life. You have zero sympathy for killers who claim to have seen the light in prison. You are troubled by the possibility of wrongful convictions but highly skeptical of such claims. You are concerned about the cost of keeping men and women in prison for so long but accept it as the price of public safety.

"Yes, sometimes": You are moderate to liberal and believe parole has a place in criminal justice, and that some inmates probably deserve to be released from prison. You believe governors and presidents should have the power to pardon convicted killers as a check against injustice or as a way of rewarding good behavior. You're skeptical of claims of innocence, but you think such claims ought to get serious review. You believe a governor or president should have the power to review some cases long after the courts have had their say. You have reasonable confidence that public officials consider all factors and make the best decisions in the interests of justice and public safety.

Each camp has its extreme. The "No, never" extreme thinks Maryland should follow Virginia's example and abolish parole. The "Yes, sometimes" extreme is opposed to the death penalty yet refuses to accept life without parole as a substitute; it wants the parole possibility for everyone.

But let's deal with the reality:

In Maryland, we have a parole system. We have hundreds of inmates who were sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. These inmates were told that, if they behaved themselves for 25 or 30 years, they might one day get out of prison.

But what's happened? Two Democratic governors have refused to approve any recommendations from the Maryland Parole Commission to parole lifers. Under current law, no lifer may leave prison without the governor's signature. (Maryland is only one of three states in the nation that give its governors the power to reject such a recommendation.)

First Parris Glendening and now Martin O'Malley wouldn't even look in the general direction of any aging lifer seeking parole. (Mr. Glendening, who served as governor from 1995 to 2003, has since said his life-means-life edict was wrong and politically motivated.) Mr. O'Malley's official indifference has affected some 50 inmates up for parole or commutation, including one named Mark Farley Grant. Mr. O'Malley has kept Mr. Grant behind bars despite a credible claim of innocence made through a student-faculty group at the University of Maryland Law School to the governor's office nearly three years ago.

Mr. Grant has been in a Maryland prison since 1984 for a Baltimore murder; he was sentenced to life (with the possibility of parole) when he was 15. He was recently recommended for release. Mr. O'Malley has done nothing about it.

The governor knows that, while "Yes, sometimes" Marylanders are out there, parole is not something top-of-mind for many of us, especially in challenging economic times. Our coolly calculative governor probably figures he has little to gain from paroling a convicted killer and potentially a lot to lose if things go bad. It's not much of a position — but certainly an easy and cynical way of working up the kind of tough-on-crime bona fides that help any Democrat ward off charges of being too liberal as he seeks higher office.

The General Assembly finally stepped in and did something about all this — it passed a law making a parole commission recommendation for a lifer effective unless the governor rejects it within 180 days. What did Mr. O'Malley do when the new law reached him for a signature? He refused to sign it, like some bratty lad who didn't like having one of his toys taken away, even if he hadn't been playing with it.

Fortunately, even without Mr. O'Malley's signature, the law takes effect Oct. 1. If Mr. O'Malley maintains his indifference for 180 days after that, Mr. Grant and other lifers who have served at least 25 years and who have received a thumbs-up from the parole commission could finally get what they were told they'd get if they played by the rules.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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