Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Maryland has a longstanding history with the philosophy of “life means life,” and governors strictly enforced this policy despite their eventual remorse. Strict enforcement on life sentences has denied many the option of parole for decades.
In Maryland, eligibility for parole based upon extenuating medical conditions and age, otherwise known as compassionate release, has been plagued with political imposition and massive oversights. Maryland is the third lowest state on effective compassionate release policies as of 2022.
Maryland legislators need to remove the governor’s influence in medical and geriatric parole decisions, so the process becomes more humane and efficient. The compassionate release systems need to be further reformed to expand eligibility and meet the needs of those vulnerable populations.
In 2021, the governor lost the ability to overturn parole decisions for people serving life sentences. While this legislation eased the process and removed potential political convolution for several parolees, the governor is still involved in the decision making for compassionate releases.
With the governor’s ability to veto a medical or geriatric parole ruling, an inmate can be waiting for a compassionate release for an extra six months. Compassionate releases focus on cases where an expedited process is arguably the most critical, as the difference between six months could be dying comfortably next to friends and family or alone in a prison cell. We’ve already seen examples of this in Maryland as five people approved for medical parole have died waiting for gubernatorial action since 2021.
Additionally, Maryland legislators are considering a bill that would reform the qualifications and considerations for medical and geriatric parole. The bill has three main purposes: to make age a contributing factor when determining parole, to define eligibility for medical parole and to better involve physicians’ evaluations for consideration in medical parole.
State Sen. Shelly Hettlemen (D-Baltimore County), the sponsor for the bill, explained that many elderly prisoners are ineligible for geriatric parole because it is restricted to only those who have committed multiple violent offenses and not otherwise parole eligible. The new law would expand access while continuing to consider a person’s potential to reoffend and risk to public safety when evaluating the possibility of parole.
Medical parole would similarly expand access by changing the requirements for eligibility. The current law requires people to be physically incapacitated or chronically debilitated to the point that they are physically incapable of presenting a danger to society. However, qualifications for such requirements are not defined and often based heavily upon a Karnofsky scale, meant to measure cancer patients’ well-being but doesn’t give a complete view of a patients’ medical condition.
The senate bill would clearly define these medical conditions and include examples such as dementia, terminal illnesses or conditions that prevent individuals from completing daily tasks without assistance. Such conditions could be determined by an independent in-person medical examination, something that is not currently required. Expanding on these definitions and including more accurate medical examinations for medical parole means individuals with extenuating health conditions are not confined to inadequate prison health care.
This legislation is also important as geriatric parole is an area that affects a considerably large group, as more than six percent, or upwards of 3,300 people within the Maryland prison population are over the age of 50. This number is also only expected to grow as 11 percent of the prison population are serving life sentences.
A common objection to such reforms is one raised by state Sen. Paul Corderman (R-Washington County), that compassionate release sends violent criminals back into the public. While the legislation would allow parole for those convicted for life sentences, the mitigating circumstances of age and significant medical conditions are understood to limit public safety concerns. And geriatric release would not be an option for those eligible or registered as sex offenders.
After 235 incarcerated Marylanders with an average age of 64 were made eligible for release following a 2012 court ruling — many of whom had committed serious violent offenses — the recidivism rate was lower than three percent. Compared to Maryland’s double digit recidivism rate, it’s clear these groups have largely aged out of criminal behavior, and we can release them without significant risk to public safety.
A failing grade in compassion is unacceptable, and reforms must be made to better serve our vulnerable prison populations. Removing the governor from the compassionate release process would remove a possible six-month waiting period, allowing them to be better served. Clarifying the requirements for medical and geriatric parole is also necessary to expand access to those who need support.
The chronically ill and elderly within the Maryland prison system have been denied justified parole through excessive restrictions and long waiting periods for far too long. It’s time to reform compassionate release for these helpless individuals.
Kyra Freeman is a sophomore philosophy, politics and economics major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.