WESTOVER — —Nearly 40 years have come and gone since Calvin Ash, a hospital kitchen worker, committed his one and only crime: At the age of 21, he shot to death his estranged wife's boyfriend. A Baltimore judge found him guilty and sentenced him to life in prison in 1972. Under the conditions of his sentence, Mr. Ash would one distant day be eligible for parole.
Thirty-two years later, in 2004, the Maryland Parole Commission considered and approved Mr. Ash for release. But there was a catch: In Maryland, the governor can reject the commission's recommendations and, unfortunately for Mr. Ash, his case did not reach the governor's desk until after Martin O'Malley had been elected, in 2006. Mr. O'Malley opposes all parole for lifers. He took another five years to act on Mr. Ash's case. When he did, he rejected it. So Calvin Ash is still in prison, at a cost of up to $30,000 a year to taxpayers.
I visited him inside the Eastern Correctional Institution, south of Salisbury, this week. He'd been tutoring another inmate in reading when called to the visiting room to meet with me and his brother, Carrington Ash, a retired postal carrier and the pastor of a small Baptist congregation in Baltimore.
At 61, Calvin Ash is one of the older inmates at the Eastern Shore prison, and he's going to be 64, maybe 65, before he gets another shot at getting out.
Here's why: The commission won't recommend him for release again until at least 2014, the last year of Martin O'Malley's second and final term as governor.
"I was told it wouldn't be prudent to try again while O'Malley's governor," Calvin Ash said at ECI-Westover on Monday.
Mr. O'Malley refuses to commute the sentences of anyone serving life, and he doesn't explain his actions. "He's a politician," says another Ash brother, Julian Ash, retired from the Army and living in Oklahoma. "He doesn't want to take responsibility for this."
Attempts to learn why Mr. O'Malley rejected the recommendation for Calvin Ash were unsuccessful. Raquel Guillory, the governor's communications director, referred the question to David Blumberg, chairman of the parole commission.
But, of course, Mr. Blumberg can't explain the governor's reasoning in the Ash case or that of the other six inmates, all between 55 and 73 years of age, Mr. O'Malley rejected earlier this year.
(Maryland is one of only three states that still allow its governors to reject parole recommendations for lifers. Noting Mr. O'Malley's inaction on such recommendations, the General Assembly in its 2011 session set a time limit on this particular gubernatorial power; the governor now has 180 days to reject a commission recommendation before an inmate is freed automatically.)
Mr. Blumberg was familiar with Calvin Ash's case. He was aware of Mr. Ash's relatively young age at the time of the crime, a domestic first-degree murder. As in every case that comes before it, the commission assessed Mr. Ash's level of remorse, his behavior behind bars and plan for reentry.
Following procedure, Mr. Ash waited in line to get a psychological evaluation at the Patuxent Institution in Jessup. That took 18 months. He was there for more than two months, and, he says, his evaluation was positive.
That was between six and five years ago. Mr. O'Malley was on his way to becoming governor, and he was soon either ignoring or refusing parole recommendations for lifers. Four years later, when he finally took action, after being prodded by Maryland senators and delegates of both parties, it was to reject all recommendations, including Calvin Ash's. That happened in May.
So, follow the math on this messed-up system: Calvin Ash will be eligible for parole in 2014 or 2015 — some 10 years after he was first approved for it.
And he has to hope that the governor who succeeds Mr. O'Malley will be — like his Republican predecessor, Bob Ehrlich — open to at least considering the cases sent to him. While he was governor between 2003 and 2007, Mr. Ehrlich considered parole on a case-by-case basis. In four years, he commuted the sentences of five lifers, granted medical parole to one and denied 11.
In the mid-1990s, a previous Democratic governor, Parris Glendening, issued the "life means life" edict that Mr. O'Malley continues to embrace. In doing so, both men tossed aside the parole commission and a fundamental principle of our corrections system: that, with good behavior and the passage of time, some lifers might one day be eligible for parole. Mr. Glendening has since disowned his absolute approach, saying it was wrong and had politicized the parole process.
This is why some of their advocates and kin call the aging lifers, like Calvin Ash, political prisoners. "It's like they've been sentenced twice," says Carrington Ash.
We should either abolish parole or pull the governor's hands out of the process entirely. I vote for the latter.
Dan Rodricks' column appears here each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of Midday on WYPR 88.1 FM. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.