O'Malley's parole inaction unacceptable

March 24, 2011

Every job has its nagging aspects, and deciding whether or not to parole prisoners serving life sentences has long been a troublesome issue for governors across the country. They seldom win applause for it, and even seemingly sound decisions can come back to sting, as Michael Dukakis and Mike Huckabee found out.

But it is part of the job description. Except that Gov. Martin O'Malley has apparently decided it's not part of his.

The Maryland Parole Commission has sent 50 release recommendations to O'Malley, who has neither accepted nor rejected the proposals. Unlike former Gov. Parris Glendening, O'Malley has not, apparently, rejected all appeals out of hand. But neither has he made any move to address the backlog.

We understand, but cannot accept, O'Malley's inaction, for three reasons.

The first is a simple matter of dollars and cents. It costs nearly $90 a day to house an inmate, and in times when the expenditure of every last dollar is under scrutiny, reduction in a segment of the prison population that is deemed to be no longer a threat to society is an obvious place to seek cost reductions.

As these lifers age, their medical needs increase and soon prisons will begin to resemble state-run infirmaries, with all of the expense and logistical headaches that this implies.

Second, for a governor who believes the death penalty to be unjust and an assault on human dignity, how does he reconcile what lifers recommended for parole must be going through as they wait for a decision that never comes?

It seems undignified to us to dangle a ray of hope in prisoners' faces, then allow them to go months and years with no word of their fate. It seems better to tell them there was no hope than to allow them to twist in the wind.

But our final and chief concern is found in the adage that how one handles the small things is indicative of how he will handle the big things.

If O'Malley cannot see himself free to lead on the issue of parole, how will he perform when leadership is called for on the more pressing issues of the budget, taxes and pensions? It bodes ill when a governor deflects, or avoids altogether, an issue of marginal political fallout. What will he do on big-ticket items with large political ramifications?

We understand that the current  political climate has contributed to an atmosphere where politicians are scared to do the least little thing that might open the door for future attacks of being cozy with convicted murders.

We understand that it's hard to be sympathetic toward those who have committed crimes egregious enough to earn life sentences. And we understand that the General Assembly might make all this moot by making parole more of an administrative, and less of a political, decision (which might be for the best).

But beyond all this, the issue transcends parole. It might be seen as a sign of what we can expect out of our governor in terms of stature and decisiveness, and as it stands, these signs do not look good.

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