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Hough, Shank differ on parole bill

March 20, 2011|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS — As the Maryland General Assembly moves closer toward pressing the governor on parole recommendations, two local Republicans are on opposite sides of the debate.

The House of Delegates has passed a bill that would force the governor to act within 90 days when the state Parole Commission recommends parole for an inmate who has served at least 25 years of a life sentence.

Starting Oct. 1, if the governor didn’t disapprove, the parole recommendation automatically would be granted.

Del. Michael J. Hough, R-Frederick/Washington, voted for the bill in the House.

Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, opposes it in the Senate.

Current law says the governor has the final say on granting parole for someone who has served at least 15 years of a life sentence or 25 years in a first-degree murder case.

A Senate committee passed a similar version of the bill last week, but with a 180-day deadline.

If approved, the legislation would prevent the governor from letting parole recommendations languish indefinitely, as Gov. Martin O’Malley has done.

The Associated Press reported that O’Malley decided last week not to commute the sentences of seven inmates serving life in prison — the first time he has taken a position on parole recommendations since he took office in 2007.

Besides those seven, 43 more inmates serving a life sentence in the Division of Correction are awaiting a gubernatorial decision, according to the state Department of Legislative Services.

Forty-two of the 50 were recommended for a commutation of their sentence and eight were recommended for parole.

When the House approved its version 74-66 on March 8, four Washington County delegates voted against the bill — Republicans LeRoy E. Myers Jr., Andrew A. Serafini and Neil C. Parrott, and Democrat John P. Donoghue.

Hough was the only local delegate who supported the bill.

Supporters and opponents have argued about whether it essentially takes the governor out of the parole process. Hough said he didn’t think it does.

“Right now, O’Malley’s denying everybody,” he said several days before O’Malley’s decision on the seven commutations was announced.

Hough said there should be a second chance for someone who turns his or her life around in prison and is no longer a danger, as recommended by the Parole Commission.

“I just think, principally speaking, that it shouldn’t be a political decision whether someone gets parole or not,” he said.

Hough and Shank have worked together this session on a package of bills aimed at reforming the criminal justice system.

One would set up a pilot program to try to curtail recidivism by more closely watching inmates’ risk factors. Another would allow for quick administrative sanctions for minor parole and probation violations, instead of harsher penalties imposed through hearings months after the offense.

Hough and Shank have said their proposals are a reaction to years of pouring money into corrections and building more prisons, with few positive results.

Their bills have not come up for votes yet in committee.

Shank, however, doesn’t agree with Hough on the bill to limit the governor’s power in the parole process.
He said the governor and the Parole Commission should review cases and figure out which criminals deserve parole or a commutation.

While governor, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich made those decisions, Shank said.

“An elected official needs to be accountable and put his or her name on the line,” he said.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee voted 7-4 in favor of the amended bill on Thursday. Shank voted “no.”

That version of the bill is expected to reach the Senate floor for debate this week.

If the House and Senate approve versions that don’t match, representatives from the two chambers will try work out a compromise.

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