Danger on the Streets

October 01, 1990

There's nothing like locking the prison door after the dangerous criminal has done his worst. It is tantalizing to think that if John F. Thanos had been held in prison the 18 months remaining on his sentence, three people might still be alive. But he would have gotten out eventually, and his history shows he was a dangerous man.

State officials at first denied they had used "good time" from a sentence imposed after a 1969 rape to help justify Thanos' early release, but now say they did. Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. noted that Thanos was released from that sentence in 1986. The so-called crossover rule on concurrent sentences should not have applied. Public Safety Commissioner Bishop L. Robinson told a legislative hearing Mr. Curran was right, but it is very late to be tightening up the rules.

A man with a record like Thanos should never have been released early, and corrections officials should have realized it. Thanos spent just 26 days free after his 1986 release, then committed robbery. Prisons have mental-health specialists to examine a prisoner's background and attitudes to determine how well he is prepared for life among peaceful neighbors. It is difficult to believe they could misread a man as violent as Thanos.

Yet we cannot let prisons become breeding grounds for such criminals. At some point, even Thanos finally would have gotten out. So will most of the 14,000 inmates in Maryland's prisons. Sentences last for set periods of time; then the inmate goes back on the street.

Studies have shown that many offenders get turned into career criminals behind bars. Illiteracy, lack of job skills and troubled families doom many a young inmate. Add drugs and the violent crime they spawn, and the ingredients for continued trouble are there. Rehabilitation, involving literacy training, drug treatment, family counseling and job preparation, could boost such ex-offenders' chances of avoiding a return to prison.

Taxpayers save money every time an inmate returns to productive, law-abiding behavior. The rehabilitated felon's contributions to society can help provide more resources to deal with criminals less amenable to rehabilitation. If anything, the Thanos case shows there are far too many of that kind of hardened wrong-doer loose on the streets.

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