Lawmakers signed off on the bill on Friday with a vote of 36-10.
Under Maryland law, people have to 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, meanwhile, states that prisoners must be “imminently terminal” or have a condition for which “continued imprisonment would serve no useful purpose.”
The legislature in 2021 passed a bill that removed the governor from the regular parole process for those serving life sentences. But legislators did not make that change for medical parole.
“It was really a technical error,” said state Sen. Jill Carter, a Democrat from Baltimore and lead sponsor of the bill, on the floor. “I think this is not a bill that should cause any consternation,” she later added.
Since 2021, Carter said, the Maryland Parole Commission approved medical parole for five people who later died before being released because they were waiting on the governor to act.
But state Sen. Paul Corderman, a Republican who represents Washington and Frederick counties, stated that “these individuals have committed the most heinous crimes” and expressed concern about victims.
Corderman said the measure would take the decision-making power away from the person the voters elect.
“When we continue to have violent crime across our state, and this is the message we’re going to send to our citizens that violent criminals are coming back out,” Corderman said. “And for all those reasons, I can’t support this bill.”
State Sen. William C. Smith Jr., a Democrat from Montgomery County who serves as chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the legislation was “actually not that radical of a change” and described the measure as sensitive to victims and their families.
“This is the humane thing to do,” Smith said on the floor. “It’s just level-setting the entire process for parole.”
Meanwhile, two bills that would overhaul compassionate release — a term that encompasses medical and geriatric parole — have not received a vote in the House Judiciary Committee or the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, respectively. The legislation also includes language to remove the governor from the medical parole process.
In Maryland, people must be 60 or older and have served at least 15 years in prison to qualify for geriatric parole.
But they also must have been sentenced under a provision related to subsequent convictions for crimes of violence, which include murder, rape and carjacking. So that means almost no one is eligible.
T. Shekhinah Braveheart, advocacy associate at the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that works on solutions to problems in the juvenile and criminal justice systems, said she was pleased that the bill removing the governor from the medical parole process passed in the state Senate.
But Braveheart said that she hopes that lawmakers see the importance of passing the comprehensive bill. She said there are people with terminal illnesses who cannot have their needs met in a carceral setting.
“It’s needed right now,” Braveheart said. “It’s long overdue.”
Bills need to clear at least one chamber by the end of day on March 20 to have a realistic chance of passing in 2023.