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The Maryland Senate voted to override Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s veto of a bill that removes the governor’s office from parole decisions. The measure will become law if the veto is also overridden in the House of Delegates, where it is likely to be debated on Tuesday.
Senate Bill 202, championed by Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County), places parole decisions solely in the hands of the state’s 10-person parole commission.
Parole commissioners are appointed by the secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and approved to serve six-year terms by the governor.
Advocates say the reform is necessary to avoid potential political pressure that could arise by requiring the governor’s involvement in the process.
Under the legislation, people serving life sentences with the possibility of parole become eligible for release after serving the equivalent of 20 years, accounting for diminution credits. At least six members of the commission must vote in favor of their release.
“…I want us to understand that we’re talking about the end of the process: These are cases that have already been litigated in court, a jury [or] a judge has made a decision as to a sentence and now they’ve been serving a sentence and it’s up to the Parole Commission to make a decision whether or not it’s in the … the welfare of our community to have this person released,” Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) said from the Senate floor. “And if that decision is no, they will not recommend them for release.”
Those who were sentenced for a crime that occurred before Oct. 1, 2021, become eligible after serving the equivalent of 15 years.
Hogan’s veto was overridden in the Senate on a margin of 31-16.
Maryland is one of only three states to require the governor to give final approval of parole recommendations.
Senate Republicans argued that Maryland’s existing law is already progressive enough, noting that parole policies for first-degree murder convictions are stricter in other states.
“…When we say a large number of states don’t allow that we’re not just talking about some of the states that might spring to mind: conservative, rustbelt, southern states,” Senate Minority Whip Justin D. Ready (R-Carroll) said from the floor. “We’re talking about states like New York and Minnesota that don’t even allow for the opportunity for parole with premeditated, first-degree murder.”
Sen. Robert G. Cassilly (R-Harford) said Hogan did the legislature “a favor” in vetoing the bill, arguing that, in cases where diminution credits are applied, people could be released in 11-and-a-half years.
Carter disagreed with Cassilly’s assertion that anyone could be released after serving a little more than a decade, saying anyone eligible for release under the bill would be required to serve at least 17-and-a-half years.
Carter also said it’s rare for anyone to be recommended for parole after their first hearing with the commission.
Key figures in the fight to remove the governor from the parole process, including criminal justice reform advocate Walter Lomax, looked on from the gallery during the debate.
In an interview prior to the vote to override, Lomax said that the passage of this bill finally removes politics from the parole process.
“What this personally means to me is that — at this point, at least — those people that deserve a meaningful opportunity [for release] will at least have that,” he said.
Gwendolyn Levi, an advocate with the Maryland Justice Project, let out a cheer after the Senate vote was tallied.
Levi, who referred to herself as a “returning citizen” after 16 years of incarceration, said she was thinking of women who she served time with at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women.
“It’s a shame because some of them are older, much older, and are just being warehoused, not even remembering their crime because they’re facing dementia or other things that age brings on,” Levi said.
She was pleased the Senate voted again in favor of the bill because political influence is inevitable if the governor remains a part of the process.
“My question was, because the parole board makes a thorough, thorough investigation, what different criteria does the governor use to then go against what his appointed council has recommended?” Levi asked. “…If there’s no different criteria that the governor uses, and he’s only using it as a political tool based on today’s headline — and not based on the people’s lives that it affects — then he should be removed from this process.”
In a floor session that lasted just under two hours, the Senate voted, largely along party lines, to override 13 of the Republican governor’s vetoes.
Several of the votes were undertaken without debate, including measures that require prevailing wages on public utility projects, incentivize clean energy development and reform emergency procurement.
Currently, only Baltimore City Community College and the Community College of Baltimore County have bargaining rights for at least some employees, while Montgomery College has bargaining rights for many employees, including faculty.
“Our community colleges are the backbone of every one of our communities — the people who are working there are our friends, our neighbors…let’s show them the respect and the dignity they deserve,” said Sen. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery), the sponsor of the Senate Bill 746. He stressed that this bill would “does not mandate” but rather “affords the opportunity” for employees to be represented by a bargaining unit. If employees are content with their management, then “everything remains just as it is,” he said.
However, Ready contended that the bill would increase tuition costs “to the very people who we want to try to keep education affordable — working families, single parents.”
Kramer responded that there is no evidence of student tuition increasing when collective bargaining for workers is enacted.
Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Lower Shore) said she talked with the president of Wor-Wic Community College, who said this was a “very bad time for collective bargaining” because the school is facing severe workforce shortages.
The Senate overrode the veto in a 32-15 vote along party lines.
The vote on the local income tax bill was 30-17. That measure, called the Local Tax Relief for Working Families Act of 2021, would allow local governments to apply the county income tax based on a taxpayer’s economic bracket. The change could result in lower local income tax rates for the lowest-income residents and higher rates for the wealthiest.
The Senate also moved to “postpone indefinitely” consideration of an override vote on two measures: the Purple Line Marketing Act and a bill to decriminalize possession of drug paraphernalia.
Lawmakers are planning updated legislation to address the plight of small businesses along the Purple Line construction scar in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
In an interview, Ferguson said the drug paraphernalia vote was pushed off to give more attention to “a really complex issue” and take a comprehensive approach to overdose prevention. He said lawmakers “have to be open” to all policies, including the potential of safe consumption sites in Maryland.
“We really want to make sure it’s done the right way. It’s an important issue that we really have to figure out,” Ferguson said. “And we’ll take it up again in our coming session [in January 2022]. We just have to get it right.”
Carter, who sponsored the bill, called the failure to override Hogan’s veto on Senate Bill 420 “heartbreaking.”
“I’m gonna just assume that there were people that had hesitation about voting for it in an election year because of the implications that somehow this means you’re like ‘pro-drug abuse’ or something, which, of course, we’re not,” Carter said in an interview after the floor session Monday. “It’s about saving lives.”
She plans to reintroduce the measure in 2022.
Ferguson said the Senate’s override votes had some core themes: “Protecting Maryland’s middle class, ensuring that we have a more fair and transparent justice system by taking politics out of parole, and ensuring that we give a voice to the voiceless, ensuring that we protect those who are at the margins of society.”
The House of Delegates is expected to take first action on a series of vetoes of House bills starting Monday evening.