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Maryland: Parole Changes Needed for Life-Sentenced Prisoners

by Chad Marks

In Maryland, prisoners sentenced to life with the possibility of parole must serve 15 years before they can be considered for release. After serving the minimum 15-year term, they have an initial hearing before two commissioners. Once passing that hurdle, they are scheduled for a risk assessment exam before a doctor – then it’s up to the governor to approve their parole.

The problem with the risk assessment is there is only one doctor with a waiting list of 85 prisoners. Until the exam is completed, prisoners are stuck waiting. Absent the exam, no recommendations can be made to the governor, who must sign off on parole for lifers seeking a second chance at freedom.

Eleven prisoners who have passed through the initial hearing stage died while waiting for their risk assessment over the past 15 years.

Fransharon Jackson, a 45-year-old women who has spent more than 20 years in prison, had been waiting over a year for her exam when her legal team reached out to Maryland’s Parole Commission to inquire about the delay. A program manager told them, “I would encourage you to not give her a time frame.”

The judge who imposed the life sentence on Jackson, James T. Smith, said a delay of one day, one week or one month for anyone who has been rehabilitated is too long.

Jackson is not the only one whose parole application has been delayed. Maryland has nearly 2,000 prisoners serving life sentences, with another 314 who were sentenced to life as juveniles. Before any of their requests for parole can make it to the governor’s desk, the risk assessment must be completed. There is not much they can do except wait.

Sonia Kumar, an ACLU attorney, said the delays could be lessened with more resources or changes in policy. Governor Larry Hogan, to his credit, said he is “committed to lowering the wait times.”

Parole Commission Chairman David R. Blumberg stated he intends to contract with an additional doctor or clinical group, following calls from The Washington Post seeking interviews about the parole backlog.

The Maryland General Assembly is also debating changes, including legislation to remove the governor from deciding when prisoners serving life sentences with the possibility of parole should be released. The companion bills, HB 846 and SB 249, introduced in 2018, failed to pass.

Several state senators have also weighed in on this issue. Senator Delores Kelley, who represents Baltimore County, said the current parole policy keeps prisoners behind bars too long after they no longer pose a danger to society.

However, Senator Johnny Ray Salling opposed any changes to the existing process, saying, “Life means life, and we need to make people realize that.” He apparently does not understand the concept of “life with the possibility of parole.”

Maryland has a parole commission for a reason – to give prisoners deserving of a second chance that opportunity. Leaving them waiting for years for that second chance due to a backlog of parole applications undermines the intent of that process.

On April 24, 2019, Governor Hogan accepted an 8-0 recommendation by the parole commission and commuted the life sentence of Calvin Ash, 68, who had served 47 years in prison for killing his wife’s boyfriend in 1972. A spokesman for the governor’s office said Ash had been “a model inmate,” with no disciplinary infractions for three decades.

“I’m grateful the governor agreed to commute his term,” said Parole Commission Chairman Blumberg. “I’m looking forward to an uneventful re-entry. We do not feel he is a risk to public safety. He made good use of his time while he was incarcerated.”

Governor Hogan has commuted the sentences of 15 prisoners since 2015, when he took office, including five serving life sentences. Maryland is one of only three states that require the governor to approve parole for lifers. 

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Sources: afro.com, washingtonpost.com, baltimoresun.com, foxbaltimore.com