John Ristick was sentenced as a teenager in Baltimore County in 1985 to life in prison plus 20 years on charges of first-degree murder and armed robbery for stabbing a man to death.

He went up for parole several times, only to be repeatedly denied release.

Ristick said he believes people should pay a price for committing crimes. But in Maryland, he said he feels the system is designed to deny people with life sentences parole even if they’ve served decades in prison. That’s regardless, he said, of how much they’ve accomplished during their incarceration.

“I couldn’t change the crime,” Ristick said. “The only thing that could change was me.”

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Earlier this year, Ristick was released on parole after serving more than 37 years. He said he loves his freedom, but thinks that could have happened much sooner.

Ristick is not alone. Data from the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services for fiscal years 2017-2021 reveals that the rate at which the parole commission grants release starts to sharply drop after people turn 40. Research, though, shows that individuals tend to grow out of committing crimes when they get older.

That’s one of the key findings of a report released on Tuesday from the Justice Policy Institute, a national nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that offers solutions to problems in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

The report is called “Safe at Home: Improving Maryland’s Parole Release Decision Making” and states that it is the first comprehensive look at parole in Maryland in more than 80 years. It describes a system with decision makers who excessively focus on the circumstances of the crime and one that operates differently in real life compared to what’s contained in the law and regulations.

“The reality is most people who go into prison are going to come out in some point in their lives,” said Ryan King, director of research and policy at the Justice Policy Institute. “It’s incumbent on us to make that process work.”

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Here are some of the other key findings of the report:

  • The number of people who became newly eligible for parole declined from 1,115 in 2017 to 587 in 2021 — or more than 47%. That was mostly a result of the prison population shrinking as well as the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Since hearing a high of 5,002 cases in 2018, the Maryland Parole Commission has steadily considered fewer matters every year, to 2,023 in 2021.
  • Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the grant rate for parole release declined from 40.3% in 2020 to 38.8% in 2021.

The current parole system, King said, is not serving the population.

King said he believes that there are a lot of people incarcerated right now who could be productive members of society and strengthen their neighborhoods and communities. But they’re languishing in prison “far beyond any public safety benefit.”

He said the group is hopeful that Gov. Wes Moore’s administration and new departmental leadership will take a deep dive into parole. King credited the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services for producing and sharing the data used in the report.

In a statement, Mark Vernarelli, a spokesperson for the department, said the parole commission is “committed to utilizing evidence-based tools to guide decisions, follows guidelines in making parole and revocation decisions, and has publicly supported proposed changes to the parole process.”

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Vernarelli said the department appreciates the devotion of the Justice Policy Institute to the subject and will “thoughtfully and carefully study its recommendations.”

Under Maryland law, parole commissioners have to consider several factors, including the circumstances of the crime, progress while incarcerated and risk of reoffending. But the report states that the statute does not specify how much weight the commissioners must give to those aspects.

Many commissioners have backgrounds in law enforcement and corrections. So they often give more consideration to “statistic factors,” including the circumstances of the crime, than to personal growth, program history and disciplinary records, according to the report.

In her experience as founder and director of the Gender, Prison, and Trauma Clinic at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, Leigh Goodmark said the parole commission heavily focuses on the circumstances surrounding the crime long after people have been incarcerated.

Goodmark represents people who are imprisoned for offenses related to their own victimization. For instance, she said, those who killed their partners in self-defense.

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Sometimes, Goodmark said, the parole commission simply decides that people have not served enough time for the severity of their crime. That’s a decision that they get to make in their position, she said.

“I thought parole was supposed to be about someone’s growth and rehabilitation,” said Goodmark, who’s also a professor of law and co-director of the Clinical Law Program, one of the region’s largest public interest law firms. “If that’s true, continuing to disproportionally focus on the circumstances surrounding the crime is fundamentally at odds with that view.”

Willie Hamilton said he viewed his first parole hearing as a formality.

That’s because not long after he was sentenced as a teenager to life in prison plus 31 years on charges including first-degree murder for shooting and killing a convenience store clerk during a robbery in 1992 in Prince George’s County, Gov. Parris Glendening famously pronounced that “a life sentence means life.”

Hamilton said he decided to go to the parole hearing because he had learned that was the only way to transfer to a prison with a lower security level. He said he came up for parole several times.

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“It was very traumatic,” said Hamilton, who served more than 30 years in prison and emphasized that he did not want to minimize the pain of victims and their families. “It’s like you’re being put on trial again after you’ve tried to rehabilitate yourself, tried to do positive things.”

“For me, it felt like, ‘Why ask these questions if there wasn’t a genuine possibly for me to be released?’” he added.

The legislature in 2021 removed the governor from the regular parole process for those serving life sentences, a power that had prevented virtually everyone from being freed.

Hamilton, 48, of Baltimore, was granted parole in 2022. But he was actually released under the Juvenile Restoration Act, a law that created a mechanism for people who’ve served at least 20 years in prison for crimes that they committed as children to get back into court and ask a judge to reduce their sentence.

He’s now a community worker at No Struggle No Success Inc., a reentry organization in Baltimore, where he helps people who are returning to society.

Willie Hamilton, he did 20 years with Adnan in prison
Willie Hamilton speaks to reporters outside the Elijah E. Cummings Courthouse in Baltimore on Sept. 19, 2022. (Ben Conarck/The Baltimore Banner)

The report highlights several instances in which the laws and regulations governing parole differ from what happens in practice.

For instance, unless there is good cause, the parole commission must provide 15-day written notice of the time, date and place of a parole hearing. The report, though, contains anecdotes from people who recounted finding out one day before their hearing or being notified only about the month it was scheduled, not the day.

“Parole is the way out for people,” said Lila Meadows, a clinical faculty member at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, who represents people in regular and medical parole cases. “If we care about reducing racial disparities, if we care about reducing mass incarceration and the footprint of prisons in Maryland, then we have to pay attention to how parole actually operates.”

“Not just what the law says,” she added. “But how people are actually able to navigate the system. And navigate it without an attorney.”

Olinda Moyd, director of the Decarceration and Re-Entry Clinic at the American University Washington College of Law, noted how the parole commission denying people release particularly affects communities of color.

Maryland leads the United States in incarcerating young Black men, according to a 2019 policy brief from the Justice Policy Institute.

“We’ve stripped resources from these communities. We’ve removed men and women from these communities for decades,” said Moyd, who previously worked from 1990-2020 in the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, where she served as chief attorney of the Parole Division. “I just think it’s further just depletion of how we fail to take care, humanize, people of color.”

The best practices mentioned in the report include some of the following:

  • Presuming that punishment has been satisfied at the time of the initial parole hearing
  • Allowing people to have access to counsel and all materials that the parole commission will use
  • Requiring the parole commission to explain a decision to deny release in writing and allow individuals to appeal

Since his release from prison, Ristick, 55, who works at a laundry facility and lives in Baltimore, said he wants to get married and start a ministry.

Ristick said he’s always been the underdog but is determined to succeed. He said he hopes that other people who are incarcerated receive the same opportunity as him.

“Life is great on the other side. But there’s still a lot of things that need to be done for those people who are still locked up,” Ristick said. “They need to have their voices heard.”

Read the report