Legal patchwork guides length of Md. prison terms

September 25, 1990|By William F. Zorzi Jr.

The early release of murder suspect John F. Thanos agai raises questions about calculating how much time inmates spend behind bars -- a complicated process made more difficult by an overcrowded prison system and repeated changes in laws and policies.

That time in prison is determined by a patchwork body of law, regulations and rules assembled over the years, almost by trial and error, officials of the Maryland Division of Correction acknowledge.

Those rules and regulations have been changed by new policies implemented to plug loopholes the law never anticipated, many of them the result of inmate lawsuits. One change often begets another. The prison policy is a collection of interpretations that uses an almost unintelligible language all its own.

The policy that led to Thanos' release 18 months early becaus of the application of so-called "good-time" credits he earned on an earlier sentence is an example of such a metamorphosis -- one that will be reviewed today by a House Appropriations subcommittee in Annapolis.

Whether or not that policy was properly applied in Thanos' case -- a question still under investigation -- it evolved from decisions in inmate lawsuits, Division of Correction officials and Legal Aid Bureau lawyers say.

Another complicating factor in calculating the amount of time inmates spend behind bars is that "good time" and loss of that time for in-prison infractions is computed by hand, correction officials say.

Those credits -- for good behavior, in-prison work and education, and living in overcrowded conditions -- and the loss of those credits are entered month by month on a "diminution of confinement" card for each of the prison system's some 17,000 inmates, officials say.

And each institution has its own way of keeping track of that time, say both correction officials and Legal Aid lawyers handling inmate lawsuits.

Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's County, chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees corrections issues, said last week that the Thanos episode points out a larger problem, which he described "as a recurring misinterpretation or confusion at DOC with sentencing orders and commitment rules."

Division of Correction regulations "have gotten too complex, and I think the department obviously needs some bright-line rules that are easily understood, especially by people on the front lines who literally hold the key to the jail cell," he said.

Mr. Maloney will get the chance to lay the groundwork for possible changes today, when Bishop L. Robinson, state secretary of public safety and correctional services, is to appear before his subcommittee.

Mr. Robinson is sure to be questioned about the circumstances surrounding the release of Thanos April 5 from Eastern %o Correctional Institution in Somerset County after serving about four years of a seven-year sentence for robbery.

Thanos, 41, of Joppa, was arrested Sept. 4, after a six-day crime spree that left three people dead. He has been charged with two murders, an attempted murder, two robberies and a host of other crimes, and is being held at the Worcester County Detention Center.

Correction officials who have seen Thanos' records say he was released because of a policy adopted March 9 that allowed credits earned on one sentence to be applied to a second, overlapping sentence.

The new policy dramatically changed the way so-called "good time" credits are applied to overlapping sentences to reduce inmates' time behind bars.

In Thanos' case, that meant the credits he earned on a 21-year rape sentence, from which he was released in 1986, were applied to a later robbery sentence. The robbery sentence, which officially began 26 days after he was released from the rape conviction, overlapped because it began before the official end date of the rape sentence, said one official, who requested anonymity.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. has said that the March 9 policy should not have been applied in Thanos' case because under Maryland law affecting pre-1970 sentences, his 1969 rape sentence "expired" when he left prison in 1986.

The Division of Correction agrees that the policy should not have been applied, though spokesmen for the agency will not acknowledge that it in fact was applied. After Thanos' arrest, Mr. Robinson ordered an investigation of how Thanos came to be released.

Last week, two weeks after Thanos was arrested, Maryland correction officials issued an internal memo stating that the policy should not be applied to inmates with sentences similar to those of Thanos.

It also dealt with a second issue in applying the policy, this one involving inmates sentenced after 1970 who were released and then re-arrested for violating the terms of their release. The memo advised that credits lost when an inmate is re-arrested are not to be applied to a later overlapping sentence.

That memo, dated Sept. 18, was the first written interpretation of the policy since its adoption in March, correction officials said.

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