Some of Maryland's small-time criminals, sentenced to as long as three years, are getting parole hearings almost as soon as they arrive at the prison gates to do time.
In agreements and memos over the past month, parole commissioners have been urged to hold hearings shortly after sentencing for prisoners who have been given sentences of six months to three years
Any offender is eligible who has not committed a violent crime, such as murder, rape or robbery; who has no pending charges or outstanding sentence; and who is serving "less than [a] sixth major adult incarceration," according to a Division of Correction memo.
Bishop L. Robinson, state secretary of public safety and correctional services, emphasized that despite the stepped-up hearings, eligible prisoners will continue to serve at least the required 25 percent of their sentences before being paroled. He said holding the early hearings is an attempt to make sure inmates with short sentences get the timely parole consideration they are due.
By law, inmates must serve at least a quarter of their sentences before they can be paroled. Most are not released at that stage; Maryland prisoners serve an average of 60 percent of their terms overall.
"We need to examine our population more carefully," Mr. Robinson said. "We've had problems getting everyone a hearing by 25 percent. All we're doing is looking at those cases that are supposed to be looked at."
He acknowledged that holding the hearings earlier could put more nonviolent inmates back on the streets after serving a minimum time behind bars.
The stepped-up hearings have provoked questions from some judges, who find it disconcerting to hear that almost the first order of business for a prisoner just sentenced is discussing the terms and prospects of release.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Kathleen O'Ferrall Friedman was surprised to learn that a man convicted several times for harassing his wife had a parole hearing a month after she sentenced him to three years in prison.
The defendant, Michael Rice, was not released at the parole hearing or given a date for release. But the judge said she thinks other judges should know that hearings are occurring so quickly.
Rice "was convicted by a jury, and I intended to impose a sentence that would take him off the street," said Judge Friedman, who is president of the Maryland Circuit Judges Association. "I think that we sentence with the knowledge that somebody is going to serve a certain percentage of their time. So we factor it in."
The judge said she thought other judges should know about the accelerated hearings so that they can determine sentences and recommendations for defendants accordingly. Judge Robert F. Sweeney, head of the District Court of Maryland, said he agreed and would bring up the subject at a meeting of judges next week.
Mr. Robinson said any judges who want to recommend against a defendant's parole should notify his department.
Program just began
The accelerated parole hearings have just begun, in conjunction with the scheduled opening of the Central Booking and Intake Facility late this month.
Mr. Robinson said he did not have estimates of how many inmates might be eligible for immediate parole review, but he predicted that a small number might be involved. He said about 3,000 people -- about half of those sentenced to prison in Baltimore each year -- are sentenced to one year or less. Many of those prisoners would not meet the other criteria, however. Roughly half of the state's yearly prison admissions come from Baltimore.
Holding parole hearings earlier is another attempt to balance the risk of releasing prisoners with the crowding of courts and prisons.
For example, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy recently changed her office's guidelines for prosecuting drug cases, doubling the amount of heroin or cocaine a suspect would have to be caught with -- with some exceptions -- before being charged with a felony.
Her goal is to get about 1,000 lower-level defendants into the District Court system to avoid a Circuit Court backlog that is threatening to delay more serious cases.
'I think it's horrible'
Still, "I think it's horrible," Mrs. Jessamy said of the early parole reviews. "It's hard for us to explain to a victim when a prisoner who was sentenced to three years gets out immediately."
Offenders convicted of committing violent crimes must serve at least half of their time before parole under a law passed by the 1994 General Assembly.
The program of early parole consideration is open to petty criminals such as recidivist thieves, the drunken and disorderly, and corner drug dealers.
Intermediate sanctions for criminals -- short of an expensive prison bed but more intensive than regular parole supervision -- have been used for several years under a state program called Correctional Options. The U.S. Department of Justice is considering recognizing the program as a national model next month, said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for Mr. Robinson.
Using an array of programs from day reporting to home detention to drug treatment, that program -- which affects mostly drug-dependent offenders -- has been touted by public safety officials as the most effective way to reserve prison beds for murderers, robbers and rapists while treating the underlying conditions that prompt drug addicts to steal and deal.
But the parole commission's new orders to hold more timely hearings for minor criminals go beyond the Correctional Options program to include a different population. Those inmates, if paroled, are to receive regular supervision.