ANNAPOLIS | Republican leaders in Maryland’s House of Delegates are worried that a bill to limit the governor’s role in granting parole to criminals serving life sentences will, in many cases, open the door for their early release.
Current law requires criminals serving life sentences with the possibility of parole to be paroled only with the governor’s approval. The House could vote next week on a bill that would leave the decision entirely to the Maryland Parole Commission if such criminals have served at least 15 years. It would give the governor just 90 days to reject the commission’s decisions on prisoners granted parole after 25 years.
Since Gov. Martin O’Malley took office in 2008, the parole commission has recommended parole for 49 criminals serving life sentences. He has acted on none of the recommendations, leaving the prisoners to continue their sentences.
Maryland is one of three states that allow governors to overrule parole recommendations for criminals serving life sentences.
Delegate Curtis S. Anderson, Baltimore Democrat and one of the bill’s four sponsors, said Mr. O’Malley’s reluctance to consider such cases has robbed many criminals of the chance for release that they were promised at sentencing.
“Apparently, [Mr. O’Malley] doesn’t want to act or is too busy to act. I’m not clear on what his motivation is,” Mr. Anderson said. “At least this would give people the chance they thought they were getting.”
Mr. Anderson argued that some of the criminals, most of whom are serving time for murder or rape, deserve a second chance. He pointed to the case of a man who was sentenced at 18 to life with the possibility of parole for serving as getaway driver for a friend who killed someone while robbing a liquor store.
The bill’s Republican critics accused Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, of dodging such difficult decisions but said the legislation is too light on criminals.
“It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s an automatic pass to the streets, without the governor doing anything,” said Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, Calvert Republican. “Don’t change the law to make it easier for the murderers and the rapists to get out early.”
The bill initially would have removed the governor from all parole decisions, but the House Judiciary Committee passed an amendment Tuesday that gives the governor some influence in paroles granted after 25 or more years, allowing him 90 days to disapprove.
Mr. O’Donnell proposed an amendment Thursday that would have restored the requirement that 25-year prisoners on life sentences be paroled only with the governor’s approval, but it was voted down, 86 to 50. Delegate Cathleen M. Vitale, Anne Arundel Republican, argued that without Mr. O’Donnell’s amendment, the judiciary amendment is rendered moot if Mr. O’Malley continues to not act on the parole commission’s recommendations.
“It’s because of the governor’s inaction that the judiciary took up this particular piece of legislation,” Mrs. Vitale said. “They are essentially making the bill exactly like it was when it was first heard. If there’s no action on the part of the governor, the prisoner goes free.”
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, granted parole in six such cases during his term from 2003 to 2007, several of which were for health reasons. Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat who served from 1995 to 2003, imposed a virtual ban on parole for criminals serving life sentences, famously stating that “life means life.”
A spokesman for Mr. O’Malley said Thursday that the governor still is reviewing many of the 49 parole cases and has no stance on the legislation.
The Senate is considering a similar bill.