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Posted at 9:24 PM ET, 02/12/2011

Take the politics out of parole for lifers

By W. Roland Knapp

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s budget proposal this year calls for increasing the use of parole in Maryland. Given rising incarceration costs, this is a wise policy decision. Too many people who no longer pose a risk to public safety are being warehoused for years at great expense to the taxpaying public.

But there is a group of people who, though they are eligible for parole, will probably never receive it under current law: those serving life sentences. That’s because Maryland, like only two other states (Oklahoma and California), requires that the governor sign off on parole commission decisions for “lifers.” For more than a decade now, every time the parole commission has recommended a “lifer” for parole, the governor has withheld his approval.

The Maryland General Assembly will be taking up a bill that would put parole decisions back in the hands of those who know best how to judge risk and evaluate rehabilitation — the state Parole Commission. This body evaluates thousands of people eligible for parole every year, and it understands the characteristics of those who succeed after release. While board members are appointed by the governor and remain accountable to him and the public, they don’t have to worry about being called “soft on crime” in high-profile political campaigns.

To be clear: In Maryland you can receive a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. But there is also a group of convicts whose life sentences include the possibility of parole. Judges choose to give this parole-eligible sentence for a number of reasons, including a person having been a juvenile at the time of the offense. The politicization of this issue, however, has essentially done away with this distinction, leaving many prisoners who could be working diligently toward parole without any hope.

For more than 130 years, parole has been an important part of the U.S. justice system. In the 1870s, reformers argued that having sentences that could vary in length would encourage people in prison to follow rules and improve themselves. The idea of sentences permitting early release when appropriate, combined with supervision in the community of those granted parole, caught on, and by 1944, every jurisdiction in the United States had some form of parole release. While “truth in sentencing” has in many places limited the use of parole, in most states it continues to serve the purposes for which it was originally established: It provides incentives for people in prison, improving morale and prison safety; it gives people a structured way to return to the community from prison; and it offers a way to safely reduce prison populations and their costs, which in Maryland run around $30,000 per person per year.

All of these sound reasons apply to people, many of them now senior citizens, who are serving life sentences but are eligible for parole. Clearly, public safety must be of primary concern when deciding whether someone should be released on parole. But the fact is that people who were incarcerated for the types of offenses likely to result in life sentences are among the least likely to reoffend.

A study by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services of 368 people in New York who were paroled between 1999 and 2003 after being incarcerated for murder showed that none was reincarcerated for a violent crime within three years of release. Only six, or 1.6 percent, received a new felony conviction. It is a far better investment to put limited public dollars toward other actions shown to improve public safety rather than continue to lock up older people who may have expensive health problems and pose little risk.

I urge the Maryland General Assembly to adopt this change this session. Then there will once again be a distinction between the two life sentences that honors judges’ decisions; determinations about who is released will be returned to those in the best position to make them; and parole can function as it was designed — as a way to manage prison populations and costs while maximizing community safety.

The writer is a former director of the Division of Parole and Probation in the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and an adjunct professor in criminal justice at Towson State University.

By W. Roland Knapp  | February 12, 2011; 9:24 PM ET
Categories:  Maryland, crime  
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Although you never used the word in your article, what we are talking about here is letting a killer back on the street. That's right, a murderer. Someone who ended the only life another had, did it maliciously and with forethought. If that person is to walk the streets that his victim cannot, I would prefer to have a politically accountable person make that decision. I wouldn't change a thing.

Posted by: Nemo24601 | February 13, 2011 7:16 AM | Report abuse

This bill would be a step in the right direction to help relieve the issue of prison overcrowding which has been discussed greatly however is met with little conclusive action. While some readers may view releasing a prisoner on parole who had originally been sentenced to life without parole as unintelligent and dangerous, there are some important items to consider.

Imagine an individual who committed a crime as a juvenile but was tried in an adult court receiving a life sentence without parole. This individual will remain in prison and incur a lifetime of charges funded by the government and the citizen’s tax money. This individual could be well behaved, non-violent, be fully rehabilitated, and be absolutely no threat to society but left to keep sucking in money through the prison system.

As the article noted, a government official, in this case the governor, has political investments and is not the most informed individual to judge the state of inmates nominated for release on parole. Putting this decision into the hands of the Parole Commission that has detailed information and personal interactions with the prisoners would be a step in the right direction to make the right choice regarding parole. Reducing the number of inmates who are not benefiting from prison and who would be suitable for release into society through the avenue of parole would make prisons more effective and reduce fees covered by our taxes.

Posted by: jmr1234 | February 15, 2011 1:48 PM | Report abuse

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