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Maryland keeps a model prisoner locked up 15 years too long

This piece originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun.


When they convene next year in Annapolis, delegates and senators need to put an end to the system that has kept 68-year-old Calvin Ash in prison too long — nearly 15 years longer than the Maryland Parole Commission thought he should be incarcerated. It would be the right thing to do in the interest of justice, and in the interest of saving taxpayers millions of dollars.

Though still inside the walls, Calvin Ash is getting closer to a release date (probably in late summer or fall) because a Maryland governor finally commuted his life sentence. When Gov. Larry Hogan acted on that recommendation from the parole commission on Tuesday, he set in motion Ash’s eventual return to freedom after 47 years behind bars.

But, as I said, Ash should have been out years ago, when he was in his 50s and his brother, Carrington Ash, was still alive.

It was Carrington Ash who first brought this case to my attention, in 2011. By then, Calvin had been in prison for 39 years, serving a life sentence for the murder of his estranged wife’s boyfriend in 1972. He was 21 at the time of the crime. He confessed to the fatal shooting of 24-year-old Thomas Robinson, and a Baltimore judge sentenced Ash to life in prison.

The judge’s sentence meant Calvin Ash had an opportunity for parole. We do that in Maryland. That’s our system. Some people hate it. They think life should mean life, and lifers should never have a shot at parole. But the judge sent Calvin Ash to prison with the understanding that, one day, he would get a hearing before members of the parole commission and, one day, the commissioners might even recommend that he be released.

And that’s what happened — 32 years into Ash’s sentence. It was 2004, and the commissioners considered Ash sufficiently remorseful and no longer a threat to the public. They recommended that the governor grant his release because that’s also our system.

Maryland is one of only three states that give its governor the power to reject a lifer for parole. And, because of that, dozens of inmates have stayed in prison far longer than they should have. It happened when Parris Glendening, a Democrat, was governor, though he later disavowed his 1995 “life means life” edict and said his no-parole-for-lifers position had been entirely political.

By the time Calvin Ash’s parole recommendation reached the governor’s desk, Martin O’Malley, another Democrat, was the state’s chief executive, and he continued to ignore or reject recommendations from the parole commission. He ignored Ash’s case for five years. When O’Malley finally acted on it, he rejected it.

So Calvin Ash stayed in prison, at an annual cost to taxpayers of more than $30,000 a year. (The state’s average estimated cost is now $46,000 per inmate annually, and the non-profit Justice Policy Institute calculated the cost to house, feed and care for older inmates at around $54,000 a year.)

What’s more, O’Malley’s rejection meant that Ash could not be considered again for parole until 2014 or 2015, some 10 years after the commission had first recommended him for release. This frustrated Carrington Ash, who then put hope for his brother’s release in O’Malley’s successor, the Republican Hogan, because Hogan, like the previous Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich, promised a more open-minded approach to parole for lifers. Instead of ignoring the commission’s recommendations, they evaluated them on a case-by-case basis.

Still, the process was slow. Another two years went by. Carrington Ash died in October 2017. He did not get to see Hogan, now in his fifth year as governor, finally act on the commission’s recommendation for his brother.

Turns out, Calvin Ash had been a model prisoner, with no infractions behind the walls for 30 years. The commission’s vote for his release was 8-0.

He lost 15 years of freedom due to politics and a kind of bait-and-switch deal during O’Malley’s tenure. If Calvin Ash were to sue the state for compensation, he might have a credible claim.

His surviving brother, Julian, says Calvin, who turns 69 in October, will likely come to Baltimore and live in their late mother’s house. He will deal with the same readjustment issues that dozens of senior lifers faced after the Maryland Court of Appeals’ landmark ruling in the so-called Unger case.

In that case, the court found that erroneous instructions had been given to juries in dozens of murder and rape trials decades ago. Inmates across the state had their convictions erased, and over the last six years nearly 200 of them re-entered society. As of last year, only one of them had been arrested again, according to the JPI.

“The experience of the Unger group demonstrates that this country locks up too many people for too long,” JPI researchers wrote. “If it were not for Maryland’s appellate court, Maryland taxpayers would have continued paying millions to incarcerate older individuals who are at extremely low risk of further criminal behavior.”

The General Assembly took steps a few years ago to stop governors from just ignoring the parole commission’s recommendations for lifers. But the legislature needs to go further and take the governor — and politics — out of the mix. What’s the point of having parole if it can be wholly rejected by someone who has to run for office? Hogan might accept the system and his role in it, but the next governor could decide to keep every parole-eligible lifer in prison.

You don’t have to be sympathetic to convicted felons to see what’s wrong with this picture: We hold out the possibility of parole or commutations, require inmates to be on their best behavior, then pull the offer away. There’s no point to having a parole commission if a governor can just say, “Never mind,” and keep a man in prison nearly 15 years longer than the commission recommends.


This piece originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun.

   

 

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