baltimore murder

The Wrong Direction in Dealing With Violent Crime

Democrats in the General Assembly are seeking to take Governor Hogan out of the parole process for prisoners serving a life sentence.  While this might be chalked up to yet another invasion of a Republican Governor’s prerogatives by a Democratic legislature there is something deeper going on here. As the Baltimore Sun reported it,

Frustrated with the refusal of outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley to free convicted killers even when Maryland Parole Commission has approved their release, the activists are also urging incoming Gov. Larry Hogan to take a more flexible approach.

And, of course, “flexible” means lenient.  This follows a course of actions starting in the O’Malley administration that has significantly lessened the punishment that the most violent murders in our state face.

The first was the “de facto” moratorium on the death penalty imposed by the O’Malley administration who refused to update regulations to comply with the Maryland Court of Appeals decision in Evans v. Maryland. This preceded a repeal of Maryland’s death penalty in 2013 and Governor O’Malley’s commutation of the sentences of the murders then sitting on death row.  This repeal was never submitted to the voters and remains unpopular in various opinion polls.

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So, one would think that violent murders would serve life in prison without parole but that sentence has been undermined in recent years. The Unger decision could potentially release 130 convicted murders sentenced to life in prison because of purportedly deficient jury instructions given forty years ago.  The legislature also sought to ease the restrictions to release convicted murders serving life sentences who are ill and becoming elderly.

Not to mention this year’s radical change in the bail system. But I digress.

While the severity of punishment for murders is being lessened and those serving life in prison finding more ways to achieve release in contravention of their original sentence, the efforts to push for greater release of convicted murders continues. As Professor Byron Warken, no fan of the Governor’s parole authority, describes the background of the issue,

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.” 

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. 

While the good professor sees no problem with early release of convicted murders, another step in the reduction of the punishment given to those who commit the most heinous crimes, already devolved from the death penalty to no certain life without parole sentence, it will have the predictable consequence of removing any deterrent effect.

This at a time when the murder rate in Baltimore is shockingly high, when violent gangs have shown no compunction to murder witnesses and even take over prisons from the inside. Instead of improving the ability of the state to resist these violent efforts, we are disarming our state’s criminal justice system, giving encouragement to the most violent in our society to prey predominately upon already victimized communities.

The Governor should not be removed from the decision to release convicted murders sentenced to life in prison. Instead, we should be reinstituting  the death penalty. Such a proposal is also pending before the legislature and deserves our support.

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