Appeals ruling sends 85 people back to prison Change in calculating good time credits could affect hundreds

'It's anguishing'

May 02, 1998|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Eighty-five former inmates on supervised release are being rounded up to be returned to prison, and hundreds of prisoners could face longer terms because of a recent decision by Maryland's highest court, according to state corrections officials.

City and state police were to have begun serving the 85 warrants late last night and early this morning. The former inmates are also getting a letter from the Division of Correction explaining the Court of Appeals ruling that changed the way sentences are calculated for parolees or inmates who have been released early for good behavior or for holding prison jobs.

"We understand our compliance with this ruling causes a disruption in your current status and represents possible hardship to you and your family," the letter said. "We must comply with the law but we have added extra personnel and dedicated our resources to help you understand these issues."

In addition, corrections officials say that sentences will be reviewed for as many as 2,000 inmates, or about 9 percent of the state's prisoners. These are inmates who were freed after 1992 with time remaining on their sentences but who were returned to prison for convictions of other crimes while they were on supervised release.

A few of the 2,000 may get their sentences reduced, and many may see no change in their prison terms, officials say. But the largest number, totaling perhaps several hundred, will find their prison stays extended by periods from weeks to years, they say.

"It's anguishing," Richard A. Lanham Sr., commissioner of the Division of Correction, said of the effects of the court's ruling.

He said he was concerned that inmates who might have to spend a longer time in confinement than they expected would not overreact.

"My concern would be that the inmates that it affects would maintain their remediation and their progress," he said.

A top lawyer for a group that provides legal services to the state's inmates says most of those who will serve longer prison terms under the unanimous ruling by the Court of Appeals are repeat nonviolent offenders.

"The people it hurts are the petty criminals who have never been violent and maybe were druggies or alcoholics," said Stephen Meehan, deputy principal counsel for the Prisoner Rights Information System of Maryland.

That would be contrary to the intent of a 1992 law that increased time off for good behavior for convicts imprisoned for offenses that did not involve drugs or violence, he said.

"The statute was written to get nonviolent offenders out of the [prison] system," said Meehan.

'Can't generalize'

Richard B. Rosenblatt, an assistant attorney general who represents the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said there were too many variables to say which types of prisoners might be affected.

"I can't generalize that way," he said.

Both attorneys agreed that they were caught off guard by a key part of the appeals court decision that is causing the recalculations of sentences.

That part said that whenever there is a break in a prisoner's incarceration for two separate convictions, even for parole or supervised release, then the prisoner is considered to have two separate "terms of confinement." Previously, the prisoner had been considered to have a single term for the two convictions even if it was interrupted by parole or supervised release.

The effect is that any credits earned toward early release can no longer be carried over from one sentence to another, the attorneys said.

The Court of Appeals decision centered on the case of Wayne F. Wickes, a Kent County man sentenced in 1979 to 20 years for rape.

In May 1993, Wickes received a conditional release, according to court papers, after accumulating credits for more than five years HTC toward reducing his sentence -- "diminution credits" in correctional jargon. About half Wickes' credits were for good behavior calculated at the then rate of five days a month.

In 1992, the state legislature, in an effort to cope with rising crime and dwindling jail space, amended state law to double to 10 days the good behavior credits inmates could earn each month.

Excluded were those convicted of violent and drug-related crimes, who would continue to be allowed to earn only five days a month credit.

Two years after his release, in 1995, Wickes was convicted of third-degree burglary -- a violation of the terms of his release -- and was sentenced to seven years in prison.

But when Wickes was returned to prison, the state Division of Correction computed his good behavior credits at a rate of five days per month, even though his burglary conviction was a nonviolent offense. The state reasoned that because Wickes' burglary sentence overlapped his rape sentence, he was only entitled to receive five days a month credit for good behavior.

A year ago, Wickes petitioned Somerset County Circuit Court, arguing in effect that he was being cheated out of credits for good behavior.

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