Legislation that would have overhauled the processes for releasing chronically ill and elderly prisoners did not pass again in the Maryland General Assembly in 2023, despite support from those including the chairman of the parole commission.
Lawmakers approved a narrower measure 36-10 in the state Senate that would have removed the governor from the parole process for prisoners serving life sentences who are chronically ill or dying. But that proposal did not clear the state House before the 90-day legislative session ended earlier this week.
“I think overall, with a few limited exceptions, this was a disappointing legislative session when it came to criminal legal reform measures, particularly compassionate release,” said Lila Meadows, a clinical faculty member at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, who represents clients in these cases and advocated for reform in Annapolis. “I think it was part of a larger pattern that we saw this session.”
Under Maryland law, people must be “so chronically debilitated or incapacitated” that they physically cannot pose a danger to society to qualify for medical parole. The Code of Maryland Regulations states that individuals must be “imminently terminal” or have a condition for which “continued imprisonment would serve no useful purpose.”
Meanwhile, people must be 60 or older and have served at least 15 years in prison to qualify for geriatric parole. But judges must have sentenced them under a provision in the law related to subsequent convictions for crimes of violence, which include murder, rape and carjacking. So that means virtually no one in the state is eligible for relief.
The bills would’ve made several changes, including defining and clarifying language in the law. That’s along with removing the requirement for the parole commission to consider how a prisoner scores on the Karnofsky Performance Scale Index, an assessment tool measuring functional impairment that criminal justice reform advocates argue was designed for cancer patients.
Meadows said she believes that advocates did a good job explaining how the system for compassionate release — an umbrella term that encompasses medical and geriatric parole — fails those who are terminally ill and elderly in Maryland.
Supporters highlighted the high cost of incarcerating these prisoners. They brought up the success of people who were released after serving decades in prison because of the landmark 2012 case called Unger v. Maryland. That’s in addition to noting how the proposal could help address racial disparities in the criminal justice system in Maryland, which imprisons young Black men at the highest rate in the United States, according to a 2019 policy brief.
The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services supported the proposal, she said, which is uncommon.
“As the bill is presented, we will comply with the proposed changes,” Blumberg said. “We supported this legislation last year as well.”
Del. David Moon, a Democrat from Montgomery County and a lead sponsor of the bill in the state House, said he did not believe that there was one reason why the legislation failed to advance.
Moon said he thinks that there was a conscious effort to take it slow with new membership in the legislature. He said he expects that the issue will be tackled during their terms and, hopefully, next year.
“I do think we are going to end up rewriting some of these rules,” said Moon, who serves as vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee. “Whether you’re pro- or anti-criminal justice reform, the system we have in place uses a lot of antiquated language and antiquated benchmarks and metrics.”
The Judicial Proceedings Committee had a lot of issues to address in session, said state Sen. Shelly Hettleman, a Democrat who represents Baltimore County, and a lead sponsor of the bill in the state Senate.
Those included landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions related to guns and abortion, she said, as well as the referendum to legalize recreational cannabis in Maryland.
“It’s disappointing,” said Hettleman, who plans to reintroduce the bill, “but I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to prevail next session.”
The legislature moved in 2021 to take away the governor’s role in the regular parole process for people serving life sentences. Lawmakers, though, did not make that change with medical parole.
State Sen. Jill Carter, a Democrat from Baltimore, and a lead sponsor of a bill that would’ve removed the governor from the medical parole process, expressed disappointment that the legislation did not pass.
Carter said she’s going to spend time educating people about the issue and plans to reintroduce the bill. The proposal, she said, should not be controversial.
”It’s completely illogical that we would not have passed the technical fix to medical parole,” Carter said. “We’re essentially saying that the process should be more fair for healthy inmates and less fair for those who are likely to die in prison and pose no threat whatsoever to public safety.”