Willie Hamilton sought parole many times. But in Maryland, where he was incarcerated, chances for release were slim, he says, unless you were very old or very sick.
Hamilton didn’t hold out much hope. In 1992, he had been sentenced to life plus 30 years for a robbery and murder he was convicted of at age 16.
Still, beginning in 2010 he showed up for hearings at the Maryland Parole Commission every few years. He explained the ways he had changed and the programs he had completed while inside. One year, an assessment found him to be at high risk of reoffending because he had used drugs decades earlier, before he was incarcerated, and he was denied. Another year, the commission determined that Hamilton needed to take a victim awareness course — but it was not available at the institution where he was incarcerated, and again he was denied.
“It was traumatizing,” Hamilton, now 48, says. “It’s a lot to relive, especially when you’re trying to move forward and better yourself. And it wasn’t just a lot for me. The victim’s family also had to come and relive these things over and over again, every time I went for parole.”
Across the United States, the effects of dysfunctional parole systems are felt widely, damaging the life prospects of incarcerated people, their families, and their communities. For instance, a new report on parole in Maryland from the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) — the first of its kind in nearly 90 years — finds that between 2017 and 2021 the number of people newly eligible for parole in Maryland has declined.
Specifically, the number of newly eligible adults aged 25 and under decreased by 93% (attributable in part to declines in the state’s prison population), while those over 60 more than tripled. Meanwhile, it is less likely that people will be granted parole the older they are, and those over 60 see the lowest rates of parole. These data suggest that the Maryland prison population is “graying,” despite the fact that research shows older people can, by and large, be safely released from prison.
“In general, there should be a presumption of release when someone goes before the parole board,” says Keith Wallington, director of advocacy at JPI. “But that’s not at all the way it works in Maryland. It’s a running joke that the first time you go before the parole board, it’s an automatic denial.”
While the report points to problems in the system, it also sets the stage for important reforms, providing evidence about the state of parole in Maryland where previously there was none, experts say.
It gives us an opportunity to look at improving parole, which is a necessary ingredient in a larger strategy to reduce the prison population and improve public safety.Carlton Miller director of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures
“We’re excited about this report,” says Carlton Miller, director of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures. “It gives us an opportunity to look at improving parole, which is a necessary ingredient in a larger strategy to reduce the prison population and improve public safety.”
‘It’s excessively punitive’
In 2018, Maryland’s Justice Reinvestment Act took effect, expanding parole eligibility. That year, the Maryland Parole Commission heard 5,002 cases, a 76% increase over 2017.
increase in number of Maryland Parole Commission cases heard from 2017
Since that time, however, parole hearings have steadily declined, with a major drop in 2021 due to the closure of courts during the COVID-19 pandemic, the JPI report found. While many jurisdictions across the country used expanded parole eligibility to expedite release in order to prevent the spread of the virus, Maryland’s data actually reveal sharp drops in newly eligible people, hearings, and releases.
During this period, Hamilton was denied parole again. The commission explained that because of the COVID-19 emergency, his unfavorable risk assessment didn’t expire when it otherwise would have, and the commission referred to it in their decision not to grant him release. Ultimately, in 2022, Hamilton became the first person in Maryland to be paroled under two new bills: one bill removed the governor from the parole process, and the other, known as the Juvenile Restoration Act, banned life sentences for children and made those sentenced to life when they were under 18 eligible for sentencing review.
Many of Maryland’s incarcerated people, however, are not so fortunate. “Parole in Maryland doesn’t work as a decarceration tool the way a parole system should,” Wallington says. “If anything, the parole system effectively clogs the exit, because so many people are serving past their eligibility.”
Grant rates for parole in Maryland decline as incarcerated people age, according to the report. Adults under 25 are granted parole at a rate of 37%. For people between 31 and 35, the rate increases to a high of 43%, and declines from there. People over 60 are paroled at a rate of 28%. Perversely, those who have served more of their sentence and who generally pose the least risk of reoffending are less likely to be paroled.
The racial disparities we see in parole are a result of the racial disparities that are already baked into the system.Keith Wallington director of advocacy at Justice Policy Institute
The report also found an increase in racial gaps for parole grant rates, with Black incarcerated people less likely to be paroled than whites. “The big black eye on the state’s justice system is that it leads the entire country in racial disparities,” Wallington says. “The racial disparities we see in parole are a result of the racial disparities that are already baked into the system.”
“The commission suffers from systemic problems that prevent it from conducting its duties effectively,” added T. Shekhinah Braveheart, advocacy associate at JPI. “It’s excessively punitive.”
Nationally, many leaders and advocates have recognized this problem and called for reforms that will help address the country’s incarceration crisis. In March, the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) Task Force on Long Sentences released a report that aims to improve judicial discretion in sentencing, promote accountability, reduce racial and ethnic disparities, better serve victims of crime, and increase public safety.
The task force, co-chaired by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and former U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, notes that with violent crime rates having risen in recent years, lawmakers may reach for stiffer sentencing policies, often without regard to the effectiveness or fairness of those policies.
The report outlines recommendations that draw from the evidence on criminal justice policy. These recommendations include expanding access to earned sentence credits and providing selective “second look” sentence review opportunities, both of which would create more possibilities for early release.
Where Research Meets Policy Reforms
These recommendations align with those the JPI report makes for Maryland.
“This report is a great example of where evidence and research can meet policy reforms,” Miller says. “It’s also especially timely considering the political window that Gov. Wes Moore’s election has opened.”
Maryland can improve its parole practices in several ways, according to experts on parole decision making whom JPI consulted for the report. These include making parole decisions based solely on objective factors related to a person’s future risk to the community, adopting more transparent parole procedures, documenting the reasons for denying parole and making the decisions appealable, expanding eligibility for compassionate release, establishing inclusive standards for parole board member eligibility, and working closely with other legal and community support agencies to help people reenter society successfully.
Of these, Hamilton says improving reentry is key. Today, he works for No Struggle No Success, a reentry organization that smooths the path for people leaving prison in Maryland — the same one that helped him get back on his feet when he came home in 2022.
He has also worked with JPI to speak with lawmakers in Annapolis about the importance of expanding geriatric parole and compassionate release.
“If you stay out of trouble and complete the rehabilitation programs available to you, then parole should be granted,” he says. “That should be a mandate, instead of just warehousing people.”