Friday, March 18, 2011

Releasing Violent Criminals in the Dark

He turns 67 this month, and has spent nearly 43 years in prison. On March 2 he was denied parole for the umpteenth time.

Not because he's an unruly prisoner, or considered a threat to commit a new crime. Because he's Sirhan Sirhan, the notorious murderer of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The psychic pain he inflicted upon a nation in 1968 will likely keep him in prison until he dies or is very near to it.

Is this an adequate justification? Or is the California parole board simply making a "political" decision based on fear of public reaction if it recommended parole?

When it comes to releasing persons from life sentences early, I'd say that public scrutiny is very much a legitimate part of the equation. And that's the essence of the current debate over whether to end the governor's role in approving parole for those serving life sentences. Maryland will kick the public completely out of the picture if it approves legislation to eliminate the governor's authority.

The Sun's recent editorial on the subject was disappointing, to say the least. It wasn't the Sun's criticism of Governor Martin O'Malley, who has sat on his hands, that's troublesome, but rather its falling for the 'easy fix.' Nobody (other than Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, perhaps) seems to understand the big picture.

First, one would expect The Sun to be
a champion of light and full disclosure to the public. But if the governor is simply removed from the parole process, prison and parole proceedings will be left shrouded in darkness and unavailable to the public.

For example, what did we learn about
the 50 persons whom the Parole Commission wants to release when the Sun published its article about the controversy? Virtually nothing. Advocates for prisoners, however, can serve up whatever they wish, such as this submission by the ACLU in written testimony to the senate: "[The prisoner] is serving a life sentence for knocking on a door for her boyfriend--and has served 33 years in prison." Right. My guess would be that the state proved she knew he was going to kill someone when she helped him open the door, but who knows?

That's because the names of those
recommended for parole are not public information. Why not? And why the heck isn't the Sun complaining?

But now that the controversy has pushed the governor to action,
we are getting names and information about the original crimes. And the public gets to see what's going on. That is how it ought to be.

Second, the Sun actually called for Maryland to put the commutation of sentences in the hands of a parole board.
Are you kidding me? Regardless of anyone's view of the Parole Commission (mine is low), giving it the power to commute sentences is revolutionary and cannot be justified by any of the arguments advanced by the Sun in the case of parole. Parole and commutation of sentences are two very different animals, and the Sun carelessly advocated a dangerous change in who has the power to reduce sentences.

This is what comes of easy fixes. They nearly always fail to account for complex issues and can create greater harm for a lesser good.

Maryland legislators need to take a deep breath. They don't understand enough of our prison and parole system to make such fundamental changes without other reforms. They need to understand and they need to
bring the prison and parole system under the light before they remove the only public accountability that exits now.

And Martin O'Malley needs to do his job and thoughtfully review the cases he is sent by the Parole Commission. If he doesn't want to do it, and even if he does, he should be leading the charge to increase the visibility and accountability of prison and parole officials who have control over all prisoners except lifers.

Maryland shouldn't be releasing its violent criminals under cover of darkness.