Life Does Not Mean Life Without Parole

by Professor Byron L. Warnken on May 31, 2010

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!”


WP Themes June 11, 2010 at 11:10 am

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PRISCILLA DAVIS July 22, 2010 at 1:14 pm


J. Britt Franklin November 15, 2010 at 7:47 pm

In a 2001 Maryland Sentencing Guidelines manual I found a reference which stated that the length of a life term was defined as 60 years. The exact wording is:
Overall Guidelines Range:
*60 years is considered equivalent to one sentence of life imprisonment.
Can anyone tell me if this is codified in a law somewhere? Where did the Sentencing Guidelines manual come up with that number?

alisha November 20, 2010 at 6:37 am

I believe lifers should get a second change my Husband he is a lifer bean down 23 years he dont have any problems in prison all he got he kill some guy and his freind my Husband was under drugs and alcohol at that time his record in orison is 0 he works in there Im paiying a attorney to help him come home he is lifer with the possibikity to come home he send a application to the governor in California he got a case number know Im praing for him to come home we both are getting old on are 60;s can any one give me some hope tahnks GOL BLESS Alisha

Dee Williams November 28, 2010 at 12:35 pm

As a tax payer and an individual who has a love one serving a life sentence WITH the possibility of parole under the Maryland Judicial System, what steps can myself, our family and our community take to change the “life means life” policy? I’m looking forward to your response and any information you may be able to provide!

marlo December 12, 2010 at 4:20 pm

this makes alot of sence,when will they really look into it and do something who knows but one hing is for sure people do change,whats wrong with a second chance whats wrong with some one helping another look at all these youth there either dead or in prison for the rest of there life. they made a poor decision help them make better ones i can go on and on thanks for this calm some of us need it.

A@K Legal Service January 15, 2011 at 2:57 pm

We have followed your work, and enjoyed your blogs as well as your legal arrguments. We assist inmates (only) and we want to know if you have a person who was sentenced in 1984 a model inmate, no infractions for the last 15 years he should get a chance at freedom. What can be put in for him? At this point he only has parole hearings, so he would arrgue for a recommendation for parole for the Gov. We have never seen a inmate that has done so much to change his life and remain infraction free.

PRISCILLA DAVIS January 17, 2011 at 4:58 pm


Brenda January 27, 2011 at 1:51 pm

Your article is right on, something must be done about this. They were actually sentenced twice, double jeopardy. There is a lot wrong with this. What is the stand on this with the Supreme Court, does anyone know? I have a son who was sentenced to life with parole at the age of 18. His lawyer told him to take a plea and he would serve a maximum of 15 years. I hate crime as much as the next person but what the Govenors are doing is not right. Give these people a 2nd chance at life on the outside. It’s just the right thing to do, I’m sure these men will make good citizens. If there is a task force lokking at this I want to join it!

Greg January 29, 2011 at 11:43 pm

Im sorry but if you kill you should never ever see the light of day again. The end. Think twice before you act and drugs is no excuse.

Rita February 8, 2011 at 3:13 pm

In 1992, my 16 year old son accepted a plea bargain, largely because the state prosecutor of A A County told us he would block
a judicial recommendation for incarceration in Patuxent Inst., the only facility that could provide comprehensive mental health services. It was the biggest mistake of our lives. Our son was sentenced to “life with the possibility of parole.” At the time, our attorney told us that he would be eligible for parole in 12 1/2 years and given his youth, and no prior juvenile record, it was likely he’d be paroled in about fifteen years. No one ever said anything about needing the Governor’s signature. So far, my son’s spent more than half his life in prison…a punishment three times more punitive than he would have spent under the juvenile guidelines. It’s time
for this to change. On Feb. 9, 2011…advocates for change will meet at the State House in Annapolis at noon. I hope everyong looking for “truth” in sentencing, will come to let their voices be heard.

John February 14, 2011 at 3:02 pm

I appreciate the history – thanks! My question is this, though: is the sentence that you’re calling “life with the possibility of parole” actually called that, or is it simply calle “life”? I know that the obvious implication when contrasted with “life without the possibility of parole” is that “life” implies the possibility of parole, but is it actually part of the sentence? Even if the sentence is called “life with the possibility of parole,” there is no implication that parole is somehow a right, even for a model inmate, but remains only a “possibility,” subject to the competent authority, in this case, the governor. Furthermore, it’s not like the parole commission is not allowed to recommend parole anymore to the governor, it’s just that they don’t, according to you, because they have simply been told that the governor won’t even hear it. Wouldn’t it be better, though, at least for the sake of showing where the hold up is, if they were to go ahead and submit the recommendation anyway, so that at least it’s more clear that this is the governor’s doing since it would require him to actually choose to act/not act?

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