Washington, DC – The Maryland Parole Commission (MPC) suffers from a series of systemic problems that result in the parole system’s inability to conduct its duties effectively. Many individuals remain in prison long past any meaningful public safety benefit at substantial cost to individuals, families, communities, and Maryland taxpayers. It has been nearly 100 years since the last comprehensive review of Maryland’s parole practices. A new report by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), Safe at Home: Improving Maryland’s Parole Release Decision Making, documents how parole practices in Maryland affect incarcerated individuals, identifies inefficiencies in release decision-making, and provides recommended changes to policy and practice informed by best practices in the field.
“The spirit and intent of parole is to act as a responsible mechanism of release,” said Paul Ashton, Interim Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute. “The findings in this report show a Maryland parole system that fails to function and is clogging the exit, costing taxpayers millions, and not improving public safety. Maryland policymakers should take heed of the recommendations in this report, all of which are grounded in data and practical experience.”
Since 2017, the number of individuals newly eligible for parole in Maryland has declined. Much of this decline is attributable to the shrinking incarcerated population and the impact of COVID-19. The decline between 2017 and 2021 was primarily driven by a 93 percent decrease in emerging adults (25 years of age and under) becoming newly eligible. Meanwhile, those over the age of 60 more than tripled to 8 percent of the newly eligible population. These data point to a “graying” of the Maryland prison population.
“Maryland’s lack of compassionate release is contributing to the graying prison population,” said JPI Director of Advocacy, Keith Wallington. “Maryland’s current geriatric parole statute is unworkable, and medical parole is almost unattainable even for the oldest, most infirm population. The result means that Maryland prisons operate as hospice, for which they were never designed.”
The parole grant rate decreased between 2020 and 2021 despite the emergence of COVID-19 in early 2020. Many jurisdictions around the country expedited the release of individuals from prison to reduce the spread of the virus. This was typically accomplished by moving up parole eligibility by months and expanding the number of people eligible for a hearing. However, Maryland data reveal sharp declines in newly eligible individuals, hearings, and releases granted.
“Maryland seldom relies on parole (medical, geriatric or otherwise) to release eligible persons from prison, despite the pandemic or the significant cost to taxpayers,” said Incarcerated Women in Search of HELP (I.W.I.S.H), an advocacy organization of long-sentenced women in Maryland’s Correctional Institute for Women. “Parole is defined as a privilege–the privilege to complete one’s sentence in a free society. Framed in this context, it is no wonder parole commissioners often approach their work as judges of the presumedly unworthy.”
Grant rates in Maryland follow a bell curve pattern. Emerging adults (25 years and younger) report a grant rate of 37 percent. The rate increases to a high of 43 percent for people between the ages of 31 and 35, steadily declining as individuals age. People over 60 are paroled at a rate of 28 percent. Parole grant rates that decline with age run counter to everything we know about trends in criminal offending. Crime is a young person’s endeavor and the likelihood of reoffending drops precipitously after age 40.
According to the Lifers for Change (LFC), an advocacy organization of men inside the Maryland Correctional Institute at Jessup, dedicated to improving Maryland’s parole system, “the moral and economic impact of aging in the justice system calls us to recommend policies for moving forward sensibly. Many of us are 30, 40, or almost 50 years removed from our offense. Parole is essential to the humane functioning of correctional and justice agencies.”
Individuals in the Maryland prison system told JPI that the MPC consistently fails to meet statutory and regulatory requirements concerning notification of a hearing, case investigation, and the hearing process. People attempting to navigate the parole process complain of a confusing and complex process whereby they are given little notice and limited information on how to prepare effectively for the hearing. Moreover, many individuals describe an approach focused on the underlying characteristics of the offense that landed them in prison and little consideration of any personal growth or transformation that occurred while incarcerated. Little feedback and guidance from the MPC for those denied parole is another common source of frustration.
“My first visit in front of the parole board did not focus on my accomplishments or how much I had changed in the over 30 years I had been in the system,” said Stanley Mitchell. “It felt like I was in court again, not in front of the parole board.”
Maryland can improve its parole practices by adopting several best practices identified by experts in parole release decision-making. These include:
- Assuming that the goals of punishment have been met at the time of initial parole eligibility, parole release decision-making should be based solely on objective factors related to an individual’s future risk to the community.
- Adopting transparent rules and procedures that reflect all interested parties’ input.
- Documenting reasons for denial of parole in writing and making decisions appealable.
- Expanding eligibility and developing standards for compassionate release.
- Working closely with other criminal legal and support agencies to ensure the development of a parole release plan that supports successful reentry.
- Establishing inclusive standards for parole board member eligibility, including education and work/life experience.
To put these recommendations into action, JPI is partnering with impacted individuals, families, advocates, and policymakers to work with the MPC to identify ways to improve parole. Some of these efforts include:
- Consulting with top palliative care experts in the country to inform the MPC on best practices around compassionate release and end-of-life parole considerations.
- Meeting with partners on the inside to ensure their parole experiences inform our policy recommendations to MPC.
- Informing MPC on best practices that do not require legislative fixes.
The Justice Policy Institute, based in Washington, DC, is dedicated to reducing the use of incarceration and the justice system by promoting fair and effective policies.