Responding to legislative criticism, state prison officials have curtailed a program that granted early releases to prison inmates because they served time in overcrowded prisons.
About a fourth of about 3,700 people who have left state prisons since April were awarded early releases under the special credit program.
But last month the state Division of Correction began awarding the special credits more conservatively after legislators
complained that inmates not actually living in the overcrowded conditions were receiving the credits.
The program was started earlier this year in response to a spiraling prison population. Correction officials proposed, and the legislature approved, regulations under which inmates living in overcrowded cells or dormitories could have extra time shaved from their sentences.
Prison officials, however, went one step further and reduced the sentences of inmates throughout an overcrowded institution, not just those who actually lived in cramped conditions, according to people familiar with the practice.
"Whether or not you were in the double cell, you got the credits, because the extent of overcrowding affected everybody," said one prison official who asked not to be identified.
Of about 3,700 inmates released since mid-April, when the special credit program began, 987 left prison as much as 70 days early because of extra credits they received under the new program, according to division records.
It is not known how many ineligible inmates were actually given the extra credits, according to prison spokesman Gregory M. Shipley.
Legislators learned about the Division of Correction's more liberal interpretation last month, when the division submitted revised regulations that had been drafted to incorporate the existing practice.
When lawmakers objected to giving the special credits to the larger pool of inmates, the division quickly withdrew the revised regulations and promised to begin awarding the credits more strictly.
"I can give some rationale for giving an inmate some slack if you're packing him in like sardines," said Del. Kenneth H. Masters, D-Balto. Co. "But, to treat all people [in the prison] the same . . . I couldn't see the logic and wouldn't see where it ends."
Public safety Secretary Bishop L. Robinson told lawmakers last spring that only inmates actually living in overcrowded conditions would receive the special credits.
Under the special-credit-for-overcrowding program, inmates are eligible to accumulate five days of credits for each month they have been incarcerated since July 1, 1989 -- 15 months ago. That means an inmate released this month could get out as much as 75 days early.
Inmates serving time for more serious crimes such as murder, rape and drug-dealing, as well as repeat offenders, are not eligible for the special-credit program. There is no indication that any inmates in those categories actually have had their sentences reduced. The program applies mainly to first-time inmates serving shorter sentences for relatively lesser crimes.
The division settled on the more liberal policy in part because it was difficult for prison record-keepers around the state to keep track of exactly which inmates were living in the overcrowded cells and dormitories. The task is complicated because inmates are moved around a prison so often, sources said.
Even so, after legislators raised objections, state corrections officials ordered last month that the policy be more strictly interpreted, sources said.
"Now, you have to keep track every damn day of who is and who isn't in the double cells or dormitories," said one prison official.
Shipley said, however, that record-keeping problems were not the reason for the liberal interpretation.
"It was not a situation of keeping track of the inmates or saying it was too complicated to keep track of them each day," Shipley said. He said division officials believed their original interpretation of the program was "proper," but agreed to change it after lawmakers complained.
State prison officials first launched the special credit program in February, but quickly rescinded the policy under criticism from legislators and others. They resumed the program April 17.
The special credit program resembles but is distinct from the prison system's "good-time" credit program, in which inmates have time shaved from their sentences for good behavior. That program came under intense scrutiny when the Division of Correction recently admitted that it erred in calculating good-time credits for John Frederick Thanos, a parolee who was later charged in connection with three murders in Baltimore County and Salisbury.
The overcrowding credits are counted in addition to the credits earned for good behavior or for participation in education and other projects. Prisoners can reduce their sentences by as much as 15 days a month by earning credits in the various programs.
The average inmate, however, earns just over seven days a month in credits through the various programs, officials said.
About five prisoners who were released early with the overcrowding credits have been arrested on new charges during the period they would otherwise have been still in prison, according to Robinson.
Even with the early releases, the prison population has continued to climb, recently topping 17,000 for the first time, according to Shipley.