Sen. Nathaniel McFadden presents his bill, which would remove the governor from the parole process, before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in Annapolis. (Photo by Roberto Alejandro)

Maryland is one of only three states requiring the governor to approve recommendations for parole before a prisoner may be released, a policy that has worked to keep people in prison who pose little risk to the public, and who have been recommended for release by the parole commission, said advocates testifying in Annapolis on a bill that would remove the governor from the parole process. Though most of the testimony heard at the hearing was in favor of the bill, opponents argued that the parole commission has made mistakes before, and that someone directly accountable to the public should be the final say in release decisions.

The bill under consideration by the senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee—senate bill 111 (SB 111) and introduced by Sen. Nathaniel McFadden (D-Baltimore City)—would make a recommendation for parole by Maryland’s parole commission the final word on whether or not a prisoner eligible for parole would be released from prison.

“Maryland is one of three states that has an arbiter, that has a person, to stand behind (after a parole commission decision) and say, ‘wait a minute, I have the final say because I’m the governor,’” said McFadden, who argued that many of the state’s governors, especially Democrats, have refused to exercise their authority to release prisoners out of political fear that they would be viewed as soft on crime.

Sonia Kumar, a staff attorney with the ACLU Maryland who co-authored a January 2014 report on Maryland’s parole process, told committee members that the average age of prisoners who have been recommended for parole, but remain incarcerated, is 60.

“It costs around $33,000 a year to incarcerate somebody in Maryland. We’ve spent millions of dollars incarcerating people that the parole commission, after extraordinary vetting, has determined are ready to come home,” said Kumar.

Judge Philip Caroom, who made a point to mention he was testifying as an individual and not on behalf of the court system, echoed Kumar and called SB 111 “a budget bill in disguise.”

“The reality is that people who are serving life sentences are older, sicker and less of a risk to public safety, as a result of being older and sicker, than the rest of the population,” said Caroom. “In effect, the state of Maryland is operating an intensive care nursing home program, at great expense to the taxpayers, for people who are not a danger to public safety, and as long as stays in effect it would also mean that we’re giving away free funerals.”

Michael Millemann, a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and a civil rights litigator since 1967, testified that, of the 80 people serving parole-eligible life sentences released from Maryland prisons under the 2012 Unger v. Maryland decision dealing with faulty jury instructions, none has returned to prison, tracking closely what data shows about recidivism in this population.

“The empirical data shows, when come out, the recidivist rate is two percent or lower—and that’s all crimes—and it’s less than that for violent crimes. Why? You’re talking about 60, 65, 70 year old people . . . who years ago changed in prison.”

Those statistics on recidivism did not convince Harold Riedl, a resident of Baltimore City who said he worked 20 years in the division of corrections, working with men who had been returned to prison for parole violations, and who was one of two people who testified in opposition to SB 111 (13 persons testified in favor). Reidl compared the bill to “playing Russian Roulette with public safety,” arguing that the parole commission has released violent repeat offenders in the past and that the governor should remain involved in the parole process as a buffer between the public and parole commission.

“Some parole lifers, probably a minority, but some of them will find new victims, and for this reason, this bill cries out for an unfavorable report (by the committee).”

Scott Shellenberger of the State’s Attorney’s Office of Baltimore County also testified in opposition, arguing that a non-elected body should not be the final say in whether a prisoner serving a parole-eligible life sentence should be released.

“The person who has the keys to the jailhouse, should be a person who is accountable to the citizens of Maryland,” said Shellenberger.

Asked by Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-Baltimore City), chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and someone who said he has voted against this bill in prior sessions, whether he would oppose removing the governor from the parole process for persons serving life sentences as accessories to crimes receiving life sentences (e.g., a getaway driver in the commission of a crime that resulted in a murder), but preserving the governor’s roles for prisoners who were principals in the crimes for which they were convicted, Shellenberger said of the potential compromise, “I think that’s something that I could live with.”