Thirty years ago, if a defendant received a life sentence, and if he was a model inmate, he would remain incarcerated about 25 years before being paroled. If released, the inmate would remain on parole for the remainder of his sentence, meaning for the remainder of his life. Thus, the possibility of parole was an incentive for every “lifer” to be an ideal inmate. Certainly, 25 and out was infinitely better than dying in that building.
In 1987, the Maryland General Assembly adopted a sentence of life without the possibility of parole as a sentencing option for defendants convicted of first degree murder. Thus, for the last 23 years, Maryland law has provided for (1) a sentence of life with the possibility of parole, and (2) a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
In Maryland, if an inmate is serving a sentence less than life, whether that inmate is paroled is a decision of the Maryland Parole Commission. However, if an inmate is serving a sentence of life with the possibility of parole, the Maryland Parole Commission cannot grant parole, but can only recommend parole, with the parole decision made by the Governor.
In 1994, Maryland elected Governor Glendenning. In 1993, inmate Rodney Stokes, who was serving life with the possibility of parole, was on work release, as he was transitioning from institutionalization to release from prison. While on work release, Stokes killed his girlfriend and then committed suicide. About eight months after taking office, Governor Glendenning announced that he would not parole any more “lifers.” The net effect of the Governor’s action was that, as of 1995, inmates serving life without the possibility of parole serve their full natural life, and inmates serving life with the possibility of parole also serve their full natural life.
Governor Glendenning’s action was challenged in court. The theory behind the challenge was as follows: The Maryland General Assembly obviously meant two different things when it created one sentence titled “life” and another sentence titled “life without parole.” The striking change of expression between the word “life” and the term “life without parole” must have indicated a legislative intent for two different sentences – one being life with the possibility of parole and one being life without the possibility of parole.
In 1999, in Lomax v. State, the Court of Appeals of Maryland upheld the Governor’s action, stating that the Maryland Parole Commission should still make the appropriate recommendations to the Governor but, because they are only recommendations, the Governor may ignore such recommendations. If a first degree murder convict knows that he will never be released, he has no incentive to behave while incarcerated. If he is going to die there anyway, regardless of whether he is a great inmate or a terrible inmate, he has no incentive to be anything other than a terrible inmate.
I do not condone crime, but there is a big problem here that needs fixing. Suppose in a first degree murder case, the judge rejects the prosecution’s argument that the appropriate sentence is life without parole. Instead, the judge imposes a sentence of life with the possibility of parole. Let’s suppose that the defendant becomes a model inmate and is recommended for parole. It is unlawful for a judge to attempt to increase a sentence once imposed. Thus, the judge could not call a defendant back ten days later or ten years later, and change his life sentence to a sentence of life without parole. Nor does the law permit the Governor to increase the sentence once imposed. Yet, that is exactly what is happening. The Executive Branch, under Governor Glendenning, changed all life sentences to life without parole sentences. Since then, Governor Ehrlich and Governor O’Malley have continued Governor Glendenning’s approach. This has been going on for 15 years. The Maryland Parole Commission understands how things work. There are times when the Maryland Parole Commission tells an inmate, “You have done a great job and should be paroled. However, I cannot recommend you for parole because, although the law permits you to be paroled, the Governor refuses to even entertain that possibility, having nothing to do with you or your case.” I know this because inmates tell me and because I’ve seen it happen.
The inmate population is not a major lobbying group. Our society hates crime and rightfully so. We hate crime so much that we are willing to ignore the law and the Constitution and look the other way. This is an outrage. It is time for the Maryland General Assembly to step up and address this issue. It is time for attorneys who advise the Governor to explain the law to the Governor. It is time to end the barbaric approach of sentencing someone to life, with the possibility of parole, only to say, “Ha! Ha! The law lied to you. We never planned to parole you – ever!”