Justices' ruling protects prisoners released early Inmates let go in program to ease crowding are free unless they break rules

March 19, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Inmates who are released early to ease prison overcrowding have the right to remain free as long as they do not break the conditions of their freedom, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday.

The decision was the court's second in a month to protect the freedom that some inmates have gained because of capacity or near-capacity at their prisons. Both rulings were something of a surprise, because prisoners' rights claims have not often succeeded in the court in recent years.

Nationwide, prisons hold nearly 1 million inmates, about 100,000 more than they are designed to house. As a result, some states have devised plans to free inmates before the regular time for parole or completion of sentences.

In its two decisions -- the one yesterday in an Oklahoma case, the other last month in a case from Florida -- the court has given inmates some assurance that early release cannot be revoked without good reason and without some procedural safeguards.

In February, in another unanimous ruling, the court declared it unconstitutional for a state that has given prisoners credits toward early release -- to deal with prison overcrowding -- to remove such credits after an inmate has been freed. That decision has led to Florida's release over the past week of the first group of about 2,200 prisoners who are expected to become eligible for freedom.

The ruling yesterday involves a program that operates in Oklahoma when its prison population rises above 95 percent of capacity. Inmates not yet eligible for parole are allowed to go free and live in an outside community, provided that they obey rules for their conduct.

The released inmates must get a job and keep it or else go to school, must not use drugs or alcohol, may not go into debt except to pay for education, must submit to a drug test, and must report to a probation officer regularly.

An Oklahoma inmate, Ernest Eugene Harper, entered this program and was freed after serving 14 years of a life sentence for murder. But when the governor later denied him a parole, Harper was ordered back to prison five months later.

Yesterday, in an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court rejected the state's argument that Harper had gained nothing but a temporary furlough and thus had no right to bar his prompt return to prison. The court ruled that the program functions like parole, and that it cannot be ended without giving the inmate a chance to show that he or she is entitled to remain free.

Pub Date: 3/19/97

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