Steps taken to combat inmate release errors Officials upgrading case review policies, computer tracking

November 24, 1997|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

In response to concerns about the mistaken release of four jTC Maryland inmates, prison officials say they have established new policies for reviewing cases. They also believe expansion of a computerized tracking system will help prevent problems.

"We're not going to make excuses," said Leonard A. Sipes, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

"The public has a right to be upset with us."

The four incidents, all since Sept. 30, resulted from correctional workers' failure to carefully review the inmates' case files -- on paper or computer screens -- before letting them go. Some of the problems occurred while inmates were being transferred from one lockup to another.

Released were Larry G. "High Top" Owens, 24, who was charged with murder, Sept. 30; Bradrick Thomas Greene, 23, a convicted burglar, Oct. 7; Rickey F. Alston Sr., 29, convicted of drug and robbery offenses, Oct. 11; and Russell John Yarborough Jr., 26, charged with assault and burglary, Nov. 15.

All four surrendered to authorities after news media reported the incidents.

The releases have prompted cries for changes in the public safety department, headed by Stuart O. Simms, former head of state juvenile justice, who became secretary Nov. 1. Simms referred questions about the erroneous releases to Sipes.

"I think there should be some real management reform," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, chairman of the House of Delegates subcommittee, which oversees public safety issues. "The buck stops with the public safety people."

Hoping to avoid further erroneous releases, public safety officials have instituted policies requiring:

Two supervisors to review a case before an inmate is released.

All inmates serving sentences of 30 days or less to remain at the Baltimore City Detention Center.

Screening of inmates before they are transferred between prisons.

Color-coded folders containing the charges and warrants on which inmates should be held. The folders may not be changed without a warden's approval.

Improvement of the department's computerized tracking system.

Public safety and union officials say the improved tracking technology will play a major role in preventing erroneous releases.

Computerized tracking is in use at the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center, a high-tech operation that matches people who have been arrested with other crimes by using fingerprinting and other information. That system, officials say, is needed at such institutions as the Baltimore City Detention Center and the Maryland Penitentiary.

The state was scheduled to have the detention center and the penitentiary online in two years, but Sipes said those computer systems need to be set up sooner.

When the Central Booking and Intake Center opened two years ago, officials projected that 60,000 arrests a year would be processed through the intake facility. This fiscal year, which began July 1, they are projecting 90,000 arrests.

"We have been talking about the system being near gridlock for the last eight years," said Sipes. "We have to have state-of-the-art technology and procedures.

"We offer this data information as a point of clarification and background, but in no way do we offer this data as an excuse for mistaken releases. Any erroneous release is unacceptable and intolerable."

As a result of the releases, a senior case manager at the penitentiary was given a letter of reprimand for one incident and was suspended for five days for another incident. Another correctional employee at the penitentiary also was suspended for five days for mistakenly releasing an inmate.

"When you're dealing with overcrowding, it makes corrections jobs more difficult," said Doug Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor who has studied the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center.

Colbert and Franchot said that eliminating mistaken releases will require improved management throughout the criminal justice system. "People do get lost in the high-tech system, too," Colbert said.

State administration officials said the public safety department will receive additional money in next year's budget to help improve security.

Pub Date: 11/24/97

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