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Bill Would Take Governor Out Of Parole Decisions For Lifers

Christopher Connelly/WYPR

Maryland is one of three states that gives the governor the sole authority to approve or reject parole for inmates with parole-eligible life sentences. Critics say this set up has made parole a political football, and they are pushing to change it.

Stanley Mitchell spent more than 34 years in prison for felony murder, not for pulling the trigger but for driving the getaway car. He’s been out for two years now, lives with his wife and kids, pays his bills. He hasn’t gotten so much as a parking ticket, he told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee yesterday, and he goes to church.

“I’m active in the prison ministry,” Mitchell said. “They call me when they want somebody to talk to kids ... I can’t tell them what to do but I can tell them what not to do.”

Mitchell was released after the state’s highest court ruled that bad jury instructions tainted trials before 1980. But years before he was released by court order, the state’s parole board thought he was ready to be paroled and re-enter society. It recommended parole twice, he told a Senate committee yesterday, in 1991 and again in 2012.

“Both times I was not released because the parole board said there’s no sense sending your papers to the governor because he’s not going to sign them and then you’ll be stuck with a denial,” he said.

In the past 20 years, no governor has paroled a lifer, though some have commuted life sentences to let people out.

Senator Nathaniel McFadden says it’s time for a change. He’s sponsoring a bill that would leave parole decisions to the parole board. He says governors are too afraid of looking weak on crime, so they blur the line between a life sentence, and life without parole.

“If the state of Maryland says to a person standing in front of them that you have life with the possibility of parole,” McFadden said, “[then] no one in my opinion has the right, at the end of the day, to say I’m going to play politics and say no.”

Maryland has some 2,000 people serving parole-eligible life sentences. One in six were sentenced before they turned 17, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. A report the ACLU co-authored with the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative found that Maryland has the highest rate of black lifers in the country.

Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative President Walter Lomax, who was imprisoned for decades for murder before being released and declared innocent, told the senate committee that the 2013 decision in the Unger v. State, which allowed Stanley Mitchell and 80 others to be released, provides a case study to see whether people with parole-eligible life sentences are actually a public menace. None have re-offended, he said, though he added that none are perfect and some are struggling.

On average, inmates with parole-eligible life sentences have an average age of about 60 years old, according to the group, and many who testified in support of the legislation pointed to the added cost of incarcerating elderly inmates who, because of their health problems, are more expensive and less likely to be a public safety threat if released.

McFadden’s bill has been introduced and failed many times over the years. Part of the reason: life sentences are given for terrible crimes. First degree sexual assault, rape and murder carry a potential life sentence in Maryland.  “It’s a tough bill. I understand people have reservations,” he said.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger does have reservations. He argued that politics should be part of the process. “This is about the person making the decision about the worst people in our criminal justice system, who makes the decision about whether they’ll walk among us again, being someone who’s accountable to the citizens,” Shellenberger told the committee.

Sen. Jim Brochin said he “has more empathy for the person who drove the car or who didn’t fire the gun” but was convicted of murder for supporting the person who actually killed the victim. He suggested that a possible compromise on the bill would be to have the parole board make the final decision to approve parole for them.

Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee ChairmanBobby Zirkin, who has voted against the bill in previous years, said the issue is not simple, and he thinks sentences should be what they appear to be.

“We need to start being more honest about what the sentence is called,” Zirkin said. “If a life sentence is really a 50-year sentence, then call it a 50-year sentence. That way victims, the victim’s families and the public at large have a better idea of what the judicial system is doing.”

But McFadden says that’s missing the point. If someone is sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, he should have an actual chance to earn that parole.

“You tell me what the rules of the game are up front,” McFadden said. “You don’t move the goal line. If you tell me the goal line is 100 yards for everyone, then it’s a hundred yards for everyone.”

On Friday, the House Judiciary committee takes up the bill.

Christopher Connelly is a political reporter for WYPR, covering the day-to-day movement and machinations in Annapolis. He comes to WYPR from NPR, where he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow, produced for weekend All Things Considered and worked as a rundown editor for All Things Considered. Chris has a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. He’s reported for KALW (San Francisco), KUSP (Santa Cruz, Calif.) and KJZZ (Phoenix), and worked at StoryCorps in Brooklyn, N.Y. He’s filed stories on a range of topics, from a shortage of dog blood in canine blood banks to heroin addicts in Tanzania. He got his start in public radio at WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, when he was a student at Antioch College.