Maryland residents call for the restructuring of the parole system to better serve citizens working to reentering society. (Photo courtesy of Shekhinah Braveheart)

By Shekhinah Braveheart,
Special to the AFRO

Maryland leaders wanting to address community concerns about rising crime should reform the state’s  parole system. For too long, instead of providing incentives for good behavior and rehabilitation that  would make our neighborhoods safer, Maryland parole has been associated with hopelessness and  recidivism. Comprehensive parole reform, combined with more robust support to help released citizens  succeed in the community, could help fix this. 

A new report from the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.,  describes our state’s parole process as fraught with challenges. JPI researchers analyzed five years of  data about the Maryland Parole Commission, collected, prepared, and shared by the Maryland  Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS). In developing recommendations to  address their findings, JPI reviewed the latest research and examined best practices in parole in other states. They also consulted with family members and individuals who have experience with the  Maryland parole system and attorneys who assist individuals applying for parole.  

Currently, the main outcome of parole in Maryland is hopelessness, the researchers found. Incarcerated  people looking to the parole process for guidance find the system confusing, opaque, and arbitrary.  Frequently, they have little to no opportunity to prepare their application, and some report learning of  their parole hearing on the day it took place. People denied parole often receive no meaningful  explanation to help them prepare for their next opportunity. Consequently, too many individuals remain  incarcerated long past any meaningful public safety benefit. 

Willie Hamsa, a returning citizen who now works to provide reentry support to others, knows the  problems of current parole policy from personal experience. 

“During my incarceration, I followed the rules, avoided trouble and participated in nearly every workshop, course and  program that was offered, with titles like “Alternatives to Violence,” “Thinking for a Change” and  “Stress Management,” he said. “I also learned a vocational trade, earned my GED, and took college courses. Yet,  when I went up for parole after serving over 20 years, the Maryland Parole Commission showed no  interest in my personal growth or how much I had changed. Instead, it was as if I were on trial all over  again. Decades after a judge had already handed down my punishment, the details of my offense were  the sole consideration, and I was denied early release. That I had spent a quarter of a century in prison and had no drug-related infractions during all those years didn’t seem to matter. I was denied parole  release a total of four times before I was finally released after my fifth hearing last year.”  

Mr. Hamsa’s experience is not unique. JPI’s report found that parole is as widely misunderstood today as  it was in 1935—the last time anyone made a comprehensive study of the state’s parole system. The  system routinely fails to adhere to its own rules and procedures, and little data are available to the  public, including current annual grant rates and information about recidivism and racial disparities.  

After nearly a century of indifference, it is time for Maryland to finally embrace the spirit and the intent  of parole. As a first step, we should recognize that the first date of parole eligibility is the date that the  goals of punishment have been met; release decisions should be based on the person’s demonstrated  commitment to change after their sentencing. Other best practices include: 

– Adopting transparent rules and procedures that reflect all interested parties’ input. 

– Providing access to counsel and all materials that the parole board will use to make its decision  before the hearing. 

– Using a race-neutral, structured decision-making tool that incorporates a validated risk and  needs assessment tool. 

– Documenting reasons for denial of parole in writing, and making these appealable. – Expanding eligibility and developing standards for “Compassionate Release” of geriatric and  chronically ill populations. 

– Working closely with other criminal legal and support agencies to ensure the development of a  parole release plan that supports successful reentry. 

– Selectively imposed supervision, with the length of conditions linked to risk and limited to the  least restrictive necessary to meet the goals of reentry and public safety.  

– Front-loading resources and providing opportunities to shorten the parole term through good  behavior. 

A high-functioning parole system can both enhance public safety and conserve state resources. JPI’s  report offers practical steps that today’s leaders can take to finally fulfill the promise of parole. The full  report, Safe at Home: Improving Maryland’s Parole Release Decision Making, can be accessed, read, and  downloaded from the Justice Policy Institute’s website,  

Shekhinah Braveheart is an Advocacy Associate at the Justice Policy Institute.

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