Maryland is one of just a few remaining states that require its governor to sign off on the state parole board’s recommendations for parole and commutation of life sentences.
Because of that, no “lifer,” or person sentenced to life in prison, was released on parole for over two decades following former Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s “life means life” policy that he adopted in the mid-1990s.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) is the first governor to sign off on a parole recommendation since the late William Donald Schaeffer (D), Glendening’s predecessor.
House Judiciary Chairman Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore City) and Del. Pamela Queen (D-Montgomery) have taken up a bill, which has been introduced to the General Assembly in several iterations throughout the years, to remove the governor’s sign-off from the parole process.
“There’s no question that this group of people have committed, and have been convicted of, terrible crimes,” Clippinger said at the bill’s hearing earlier this week. “However, they were sentenced to life with the possibility of parole; they were not sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.”
Their version of the bill passed in the House during the 2020 session but died in the Senate when the legislature adjourned early because of COVID-19.
“Politics shouldn’t have any place in this process,” said Clippinger.
Former lifers agree.
Calvin McNeill spent “39 years, day for day” in prison for an offense he committed as a minor and had been before the parole board seven times.
He was recommended to be paroled or have his sentence commuted three times, unsuccessfully: denied once by former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and twice by Hogan.
According to the Washington Post, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby (D) petitioned to have his sentence reconsidered, leading to his release in July 2020.
McNeill was the first person recommended for release under Mosby’s new Sentence Review Unit that was officially established last month. This is the same program that advocated for the release of Eraina Pretty, the state’s longest-incarcerated woman prisoner.
Lila Meadows, a University of Maryland law professor and Pretty’s defense council, testified in favor of Clippinger’s bill. She said that programs like Mosby’s are important, but don’t provide equal opportunities to those languishing in prison in other parts of the state.
“You shouldn’t have access to justice in Baltimore City that you don’t have if your loved one was convicted in Baltimore County,” Meadows told the Judiciary Committee.
Testifying in opposition was Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who told the committee that the bill is “in search of a problem that no longer exists,” noting that Hogan has released dozens of people while in office: 26 via parole, 22 through commutation and seven on medical parole.
“So, this bill, while it maybe had some underpinnings 15 plus years ago, really doesn’t need to be around now,” said Shellenberger.
While grateful for the program that led to his ultimate release, McNeill stood steadfast in his belief that the state’s current system does not work.
“It’s too much politics into this right here, because a judge and jury didn’t sentence me to life without parole,” said McNeill. “They didn’t look at politics when it came to this.”
Some victims’ family members support the decarceration of lifers, too.
Darryl Green’s brother was stabbed to death by a 14-year old who subsequently received a life sentence. After he served 25 years, Green and his family testified in court that he should be released.
“I forgave him. I think everybody deserves a second chance and I don’t think the politics of it should come into play,” he said.
“Imagine going in an adult institution, 14-years-old and staying there for 25 years,” said Green. “He could stay there for 50 years or 75 years, … but it would never bring my brother back.”
McNeill told committee members that he takes full responsibility for his actions, and prayed to his victim for their forgiveness.
“There’s a lot of men that is still locked up that deserved to be home because they are showing and doing everything that we’re asked to do from the parole board to everybody else,” he said.
By Hannah Gaskill