Inmates' rights violated, judge says Parolee arrests based on recalculated prison time are ruled unfair

May 15, 1998|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

In a stinging rebuke of a prison policy that prompted the recent arrests of dozens of paroled inmates, a Baltimore judge ruled yesterday that state officials blatantly violated the inmates' rights and immediately freed one of them.

"The state's actions were unequivocally inconsistent with two of the most fundamental precepts upon which our nation was founded," administrative Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan wrote in his 16-page opinion.

"Liberty and justice."

The sharply critical ruling could mean the release of nearly 50 paroled inmates recently rearrested.

The state, after a recent Court of Appeals ruling, decided that it had incorrectly calculated the amount of good behavior time due some prison inmates and had prematurely released them.

In the past two weeks, squads of police officers have been fanning out across the state, rearresting parolees, telling them they had more prison time to serve.

Lawyers for the parolee freed yesterday, Vincent Henderson, are demanding that dozens of other ex-convicts also be released.

"We believe all of these actions are required because the state has now fully, fairly and unsuccessfully litigated the legal issues" of the case, attorney Ralph S. Tyler wrote to the attorney general's office yesterday.

Lawyers for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services pledged to appeal Kaplan's ruling and seek a stay to prevent the release of any more parolees until they can argue the case before an appellate court.

"We will be seeking review by the Court of Appeals, and we will be seeking that on an expedited basis," said Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Nathan, who represents the state's prison system.

Nathan also asked Kaplan to postpone Henderson's release until the appeal is decided. But the judge denied that request, and Henderson was freed at 2: 40 p.m. His lawyer said the ruling could help other parolees win their freedom.

"You couldn't get a better opinion," Eugene J. Yannon said.

Dwight Sullivan, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said lawyers for the other parolees are preparing legal papers demanding that their clients also be freed.

Blow to state's new policy

Kaplan's ruling is a blow to the state's new policy of calculating the time that should be shaved off a prisoner's sentence for good behavior, and when that prisoner should be freed from the state prison system.

The judge ruled that the state improperly interpreted a March 9 Court of Appeals ruling. That ruling in Beshears vs. Wickes found that the state could not lump separate prison sentences together for certain inmates.

That's because in 1992, the state increased the amount of time off for good behavior from 5 days to 10 per month served. Inmates who served time before 1992, committed a subsequent crime and returned to prison after 1992, the court ruled, must have their sentences treated as two separate terms of confinement.

Based on that ruling, prison officials recalculated the sentences of inmates and found that dozens of parolees such as Henderson, who was released last summer, had been freed ahead of time.

In arguments before Kaplan on Tuesday, Henderson's lawyers said the recalculation and the rearrest of Henderson were unconstitutional, and that more prison time could not be retroactively applied to inmates like him.

They argued that Henderson did not violate the terms of his release. He faithfully reported to his parole officer and stayed out trouble with the law. By rearresting him without a hearing, the state violated his right to due process, Tyler told the judge.

"The state has acted unlawfully, unconstitutionally, and that should not be tolerated," said Tyler, retained by the ACLU to argue the case. "Mr. Henderson is entitled to his liberty, and we ask the court to grant it to him."

Henderson, 46, of Mechanics- ville in St. Mary's County, has a criminal record that reaches back two decades. In 1975, he was sentenced to 20 years for robbery and paroled in 1983. Five years later, he violated his parole and went back to prison.

He was freed in 1991, only to violate his parole again in 1994 for a drug arrest.

While he was behind bars on the drug charge, prison officials began to calculate the amount of time that should be cut from his sentence for good behavior. Rather than treat his return to prison as a new sentence, they connected it to the time remaining from his previous term, giving him more good behavior credits than they said he deserved.

On July 7, 1997, Henderson was paroled.

But after the Court of Appeals decision, prison officials began to recalculate the amount of time they trimmed from sentences of parolees such as Henderson.

This month, prison officials issued 98 arrest warrants for ex-convicts they say were freed too early.

They estimated that Henderson had about five more years to serve.

Handcuffed and hauled away

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