ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland General Assembly began its special session Monday with a relatively quiet start in the House of Delegates, but with jubilation from criminal justice advocates outside the Senate chambers.
The Senate convened for more than 90 minutes to override more than a dozen bills Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed earlier this year that included legislation eliminating the governor’s ability to block the state Parole Commission from granting parole to inmates serving life sentences.
The Senate voted 31-16 to override Hogan’s vote and allow the 10-member commission to have the final say.
Another part of the bill, which must also receive approval in the House, would allow for the 10-member commission at least six affirmative votes to approve an inmate for parole. The current law allowed for up to three votes.
Some of the Republican senators such as Robert Cassilly of Harford County said families of victims will not matter.
“This has nothing to do with racial equality or justice,” he said about the bill. “This is an abomination.”
Walter Lomax, executive director of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, attended the session with more than a dozen criminal justice advocates, who smiled and hugged each other after the vote.
“The politicians that voted for it really understood this issue exactly for what it is,” said Lomax, who was released from prison in 2006 after serving nearly four decades for a crime he didn’t commit. “We never advocated for everybody to be released from prison. We’ve only advocated that they be given a meaningful opportunity to receive parole. If they earn it, they get it. If they don’t earn it, then they don’t get it.”
Lomax said it could be an early holiday gift for people awaiting parole hearings knowing that the governor will not be invoked in the decision.
“Now, if they get the recommendations, it will be a final as opposed to having to wait another year, 18 months, or two years,” he said.
The governor has stood by his reasoning in making a decision that hasn’t been based on politics, but he said on the oversight process.
Martina Hazelton of southeast D.C. said her husband, Eric, could’ve been released years ago if the governor didn’t have a decision.
Eric Hazelton, 45, was released from state prison on Nov. 9 after he got sent to prison at 17 years old in 1993 for murder charges.
“By having the governor in the [parole] process … essentially stopped the parole system for lifers,” Martina Hazelton said inside the State House in Annapolis. “Now, they have that process out of the way and will allow people to get real meaningful change for a second chance.”
As for Eric Hazelton, he said he just thanked God for being a free man.
“I was just talking to God for giving me a second chance at life,” said he already received a driver’s license. “I want to help other people.”
In terms of pursuing a career, he plans to be patient.
“I’ve got to take my time so that I don’t make no mistakes,” he said. “Because if I make mistakes, I will let a lot of people down. It’s all about patience and believing in God and keeping a foundation around you with people doing positive things.”
He offered advice for people who remain incarcerated.
“You just have to believe in yourself and don’t give up,” Hazelton said. “When you remain behind those walls, you hear it, but you don’t get to see it. Even though you think people are not out here fighting for you, they are.”
Meanwhile, the House met for nearly 30 minutes to conduct procedural matters and scheduled to reconvene at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
Besides overriding Hogan vetoes, the special session may convene the entire week for lawmakers to choose a new congressional map for eight of the state’s districts and elect a state treasurer. Del. Dereck Davis (D-District 25) of Mitchellville seeks the position and if selected, he would fill Nancy Kopp’s term that ends in 2023 and would step down from his post as chair of the House’s Economic Matters Committee.