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The Other Side

Governor O’Malley and the Lifers Parole Bill

By T. Michael Colbert

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has kept his promise and allowed the Inmates - Life Improvement - Parole Approval bill (House Bill 302) to pass without his signature. So, the bill became law Saturday, October 1, 2011. The bill has ignited optimism and skepticism.

"We have been waiting and praying every step of the way since the bill was first in the House, then in the Senate, and at the governor’s desk," wrote my girlfriend Ivy Alston. (We met after she read my articles in Port of Harlem. Read our full story in the Nov 2009 to Apr 2010 issue of Port of Harlem.)

Advocates have been pushing for the bill, known to many as the lifer bill, since the early 1970s. In 1993, following an incident involving a work release prisoner who committed murder/suicide, 134 lifers where summarily removed from prerelease and work release programs and placed back in maximum security. In September 1995, then Governor Glendening stood outside the Maryland House of Corrections and made his infamous “Life Means Life” speech. In the declaration, he pledged to reject any parole recommendation for anyone serving a life term.

For lifers, like myself, and our supporters, this was a brazen statement. The statement helped launch a concerted campaign by inmates, our families, concerned citizens and the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative to push the bill through the Maryland legislature. In early 2011, the House bill roughly passed 74-66, but the bill easily passed the Senate.

Under the old law, no lifer could leave prison without the governor's signature and the governor could simply ignore a Parole Board’s release request. Under the new rules, the governor has 180 days to reject the Parole Board’s recommendation or the state of Maryland will release the prisoner. The bill will force the governor to act on parole requests.

Tiffany Alston (D-Prince Georges) agreed with the change. “People who are given life sentences with the possibility of parole deserve for that possibility to be a reality.” Susan Aumann (R-Timonium) disagreed, “This decreases accountability by the Governor for public safety . . . Getting tough on crime is diluted with this bill. We need to stand for justice for the victims and their families.”

Despite what its detractors say, this law will have positive results. There are many prisoners with thirty or more years under their belt living with the hope that there is some chance they will reunite with their families through the parole process. The inmate with hope makes for a viable and productive citizen.

However, another lifer incarcerated for thirty-nine years and who was one of the 134 lifers removed from a work release program strongly believes the governor will never permit a lifer to be paroled because of a governor’s higher political aspiration. Having voters view a politician as being soft on crime can be disastrous, especially when about 48 percent of lifers are Black in the United States.

On its face, the new law may seem too lenient, but the new law increases the amount of time a lifer must serve before parole is even possible. Under the old law, that was 15 years. Now it is 25 years.

The life sentence parole bill ushers in a new era and new challenges for the governor and lifers. However, most agree that it has been a long time coming.


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