ANNAPOLIS | House Democrats made an unexpected, 11th-hour move Tuesday to block a bill that would allow prisoners serving life sentences to be paroled without the governor's approval.
Current Maryland law states that prisoners sentenced to life with the possibility of parole can be paroled only with the governor's approval, after a favorable recommendation from a state commission.
Efforts by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly to allow for parole of many such criminals without gubernatorial approval were progressing Tuesday with the House and Senate working on different versions of the legislation.
The Senate approved a plan that would give the governor 180 days to deny parole recommendations for lifers who have served at least 25 years. And if the governor fails to act, the prisoner would be automatically paroled.
However, when the House was considering its plan, which gives a governor just 90 days, Republicans and many conservative Democrats narrowly passed an amendment to require that inmates stay in prison if the governor ignores their recommendation.
"People say [prisoners] deserve an answer, and I agree," said Delegate John A. Olszewski Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat who proposed the amendment. "I just don't think the default answer should be yes."
Supporters of the Democrat-sponsored bills have criticized Gov. Martin O'Malley, who until last month ignored all 50 parole recommendations sent to him by the Maryland Parole Commission. He denied seven of the recommendations last month.
Maryland is one of just three states in which the governor has any role in the parole process.
Bill supporters have said that by ignoring the recommendations, Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, is denying inmates the "possibility of parole" promised at their sentencing. They also argue he has avoided the recommendations for political reasons - primarily that approving or denying such requests could lead to criticism from people on either side of the issue.
Republicans and many Democrats have called for the governor to take action on the commission recommendations but argued his inaction should not result in release of lifers, almost all of whom were convicted of rape or murder.
"I believe in helping individuals, but with violent crimes you've got to take a stance," said Delegate C.T. Wilson, Charles Democrat. "I want the governor to be a gatekeeper, because I'm tired of seeing dead bodies."
Mr. Olszewski's amendment passed 67 to 66, but will likely be reconsidered at the request of one of its supporters Delegate Michael L. Vaughn, Prince George's Democrat.
Several legislators said the motion to reconsider was likely designed to allow Democratic leadership to marshal support against the amendment.
"I know how things work here in Annapolis," Mr. Wilson said. "They'll try to kill the amendment, but at least I had my say."
The bill now in the House would also apply to recommendations for commutation of a sentence.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said there is "plenty of time" to reconcile the bills and he expects both chambers to pass a joint version before the legislative session ends Monday.
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