Court admits prison foul-up Refiguring of inmates' good behavior credit, and rearrests, wrong

October 09, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

In an unusual mea culpa, the state's highest court said yesterday that it did not mean for Maryland prison officials to recalculate the sentences of nearly 2,000 inmates, prompting the rearrest last spring of 53 freed prisoners.

The admission came in a Court of Appeals opinion -- issued after a 4-3 vote by the judges -- that a former inmate should not have been rearrested.

"We inadvertently led the Division [of Corrections] to a conclusion that was both unintended and erroneous," according the opinion written by Judge Alan M. Wilner.

Prison officials in May lengthened some inmates' sentences and rearrested some former prisoners because they believed that the court had ordered the recalculation of "good time credits" -- days shaved off a prison sentence for good behavior.

Yesterday's opinion appears to suggest that prison officials should return to their previous method of determining the amount of time off sentences granted for good behavior. The opinion opens the door for more than 100 prisoners -- whose sentences were lengthened by the recalculations -- to be freed.

State officials said they need time to review the opinion before making any decisions.

"I'm not sure we're in a position to state concretely what we are going to do," said Stuart M. Nathan, an assistant attorney general who represents the state prison system. He said prison system officials "are going through this very carefully to determine what course of action there is going to be."

Nathan said: "It's confusing to me. I can't imagine it's not confusing to everyone else. It appeared it was confusing to the court."

The recalculations in sentences came after a March Court of Appeals ruling in the case of Beshears vs. Wickes, in which an inmate claimed he was cheated out of good time credits.

In 1992, the state increased the amount of time off for good behavior for nonviolent offenders from five days to 10 days per month served. Wickes, who had been released from prison after serving a sentence for rape, was later imprisoned for burglary. Prison officials gave him only the five-day credit as a violent offender.

Court agrees with inmate

Wickes argued that he deserved the 10-day good time credit for the second sentence because it was for a nonviolent offense.

The court granted Wickes' request. The ruling meant that inmates who served time before 1992, then were convicted of a subsequent crime and returned to prison after 1992, must have their sentences treated as two separate terms of confinement for the calculation of good time credits.

Sent back to prison

But because the ruling allotted credits separately for separate sentences, some inmates were entitled to fewer good time credits. Officials recalculated sentences and decided that about freed prisoners should return to serve as much as five more years behind bars. Others who were still in prison had their sentences lengthened.

In May, squads of police officers fanned out across the state with warrants charging the released prisoners with escape. They arrested the ex-convicts, telling them they had to serve more prison time.

Ex-inmates released again

One former prisoner -- Vincent Henderson -- filed a claim in Baltimore Circuit Court that he was wrongfully reincarcerated. In a sharply worded opinion, Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan released Henderson, saying that the rearrest and recalculation of good time credits had violated his constitutional rights.

After the decision, the other 52 former prisoners who had been rearrested also were released. The warrants for ex-prisoners not yet found were canceled.

The state's appeal of Kaplan's decision about Henderson is what led to yesterday's opinion.

The lawyer for more than 100 prisoners who would have been released by now had it not been for the recalculations said yesterday that his clients should be freed.

Inmate claims predicted

"You can't change the rules after a guy starts serving a sentence," said Stephen Z. Meehan, attorney for Prisoner's Rights Information System of Maryland Inc.

Kaplan agreed. Kaplan said he expects a deluge of claims from prisoners alleging that they are being illegally held.

"I think anybody that they recalculated should be just let out under the old calculation," Kaplan said. "It'll be easier for everyone."

Pub Date: 10/09/98

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