Thanos' release from jail early called mistake Policy misapplied, corrections chief says

September 26, 1990|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Sun Staff Correspondent

ANNAPOLIS -- Bishop L. Robinson, Maryland's secretary of public safety and correctional services, told a legislative committee yesterday that John F. Thanos was released from prison early by mistake, and that a new policy on calculating so-called "good-time" credits was misapplied in his case.

Mr. Robinson, who appeared before the House Appropriations Committee, said Thanos' release date was calculated in error when 543 "good-time" credits from an earlier rape sentence were applied to a robbery sentence he was serving.

That resulted in his release from Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County April 5, about 18 months earlier than he would have been released before the new policy was implemented March 9.

Mr. Robinson acknowledged for the first time yesterday that Thanos' release was related to that policy, which dramatically changed the way credits are applied to overlapping sentences. But he said in Thanos' case, the policy was interpreted incorrectly by one or more persons.

Agreeing with an assessment of the case by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., Mr. Robinson said the policy on overlapping sentences should not have been applied to Thanos because under Maryland law affecting sentences before 1970, Thanos' 1969 rape sentence "expired" when he was released from prison on that conviction in 1986.

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

Under questioning from legislators, Alan D. Eason, an assistant attorney general assigned to the Division of Correction and author of the policy, acknowledged that the state could be liable in a negligence lawsuit, if the families of Thanos' alleged victims pursued that course.

Mr. Eason said if an employee is negligent, the employee also could be liable.

Elmanus Herndon, acting corrections commissioner, assured legislators that the Division of Correction has gone over records of inmates released since the policy change and has found none in a situation similar to Thanos'.

If other inmates were released early through a misinterpretation of the policy, "we would bring them back" into custody, he said.

Mr. Robinson told legislators that the Division of Correction has concluded its investigation into the Thanos case, but that the agency is considering disciplinary charges against one or more employees who signed off on his release.

He declined to elaborate on the identity or number of persons under investigation, but said that if charges are filed, they would be civil -- not criminal -- charges and handled through the state's personnel hearing process.

Mr. Robinson, who described the complicated system of calculating inmates' time behind bars as "a nightmare," also announced major changes in the way the agency handles releases, including requirements that a supervisor and an assistant warden review and approve each release.

At present, that process is left to each institution's commitment clerks -- among the lowest-paid employees in the agency -- who also are responsible for calculating by hand each month the number of good-time credits awarded and lost by each of the prison system's 17,500 inmates, he said.

Mr. Robinson drew astonished laughter as he described the complicated process clerks and supervisors must go through each month, in calculating as many as 15 days of good time, industrial time, special-project time and parole time on multiple concurrent and consecutive sentences.

As he lifted a 4-inch-thick binder off the table, Mr. Robinson explained that a federal grant has allowed the agency to begin to assemble a commitment manual that includes procedures for calculating credits, as well as the reams of laws, regulations, rules and memorandums pertinent to their application to sentences.

Mr. Robinson said the agency is going to establish a "Central Offenders Records Office" at its Baltimore headquarters and require that the original copies of inmates' "good-time" records be kept there instead of at each institution.

That, he said, would be the first step toward computerizing those records, so the Division of Correction would have a central computerized record system that could be used to calculate the credits by computer monthly.

"This is fairly elementary," said Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on corrections.

"If you don't get this part right, you wonder what's happening in the rest of the system," he said.

"I think the Division of Correction is just over-complicated about sentencing issues," he said after the hearing.

Mr. Maloney said he would ask Mr. Robinson for his agency's recommendations for simplifying the law and regulations "to make sure they are in plain English, which is a big problem, and that they're consistently applied."

Mr. Maloney also pointed out that many of these problems in the Division of Correction are long-standing.

"These are hardly new problems -- the lack of staff training, the lack of computerization. The solutions have been recommended in management audits over the years," Mr. Maloney said.

Those problems with calculating sentences, he said, "ought to be the subject of a well-designed, well-run computer program."

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