Inmates in Maryland's prison system are sometimes set free months early or, in other cases, weeks late because of errors in calculating time off for good behavior and other such credits, according to a legislative audit released yesterday.
The audit of 65 inmates at two prisons who were released in 2003 showed that one-third of them got out on the incorrect date. One prisoner was released more than three months early, while another remained behind bars three weeks after he became eligible for release, according to the report.
State auditors determined that the incorrect releases were caused by the miscalculation of inmate diminution credits, which include time off for good conduct, education, work and special projects.
"That's unbelievable. We're not talking higher math; this is addition and subtraction," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. "It's hard to imagine that they could be off more than a day or two here and there."
An official with the American Correctional Association said miscalculations such as those detailed in the audit are rare now because the release dates in most prison systems, including Maryland's, are determined by computers.
"This is the first time in many months that I've heard about something like this," said Robert Verdeyen, the association's director of standards and accreditation. "Problems with release dates are sporadic now, whereas they were more common 20 years ago when everything was done on paper."
Prison officials said a heavy workload contributed to the erroneous release dates.
Up to 14,000 people enter and leave Maryland's two dozen prison institutions each year. About 70 employees handle the paperwork for those arrivals and departures.
"It's a huge task for a relatively small number of people," said Mark A. Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which oversees the prison system.
The performance audit report, written by the Office of Legislative Audits for the General Assembly, was the first review of diminution credits in at least four years. The 65 inmates were selected at random as a statistical sample of the inmates released under mandatory supervision, according to the report.
The report does not give the names of the prisons or the 22 inmates who were released at the wrong time; neither does it give details about their crimes. But six of the 17 inmates released before the appropriate time had served more than 15 years.
None of the inmates released too early was arrested for committing a crime during their premature days out, according to the report. Five prisoners spent three to 24 extra days incarcerated.
Errors noted in the report include awarding inmates credit for work participation when they were actually in segregation and failing to award credit for work done while in jail before being transferred to prison. The report states that corrections officials did not identify the errors because procedures do not require a review of the paper documentation of diminution credits.
In a letter this month responding to the legislative auditors, Frank C. Sizer Jr., commissioner of the Division of Correction, wrote that he agreed with the audit's findings and would implement the changes suggested in the report.
Mary Ann Saar, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said in a statement yesterday that her employees do "a very good job, considering how complex the abundance of laws have made this area."
"On some issues, we even get different interpretations from the courts," she said. "In spite of the huge volume and various legal interpretations, we do a great job."
But advocates of victims rights, as well as those of prisoners rights, called the audit's findings disconcerting.
Michael Paranzino, a victims rights advocate who runs throwawaythekey.org, a Maryland-based Web site about national crime and sentencing trends, said the improper early release of prisoners "adds insult to injury" for victims and their families.
"The families will be disappointed and hurt to find that, because of mismanagement, criminals are getting out even earlier than they are supposed to," he said. "This plays into their existing feelings that the system is stacked in the criminals' favor."
Stephen Meehan, principal counsel for the Prisoner Rights Information System of Maryland Inc., said courts have consistently ruled that prisoners should not be in prison a single day beyond their release date.
"It should be an exact science in calculating release dates," he said. He said he has represented numerous prisoners who spent too much time behind bars. In some cases, he said, judges have ruled that former prisoners can "bank" the extra days they spent behind bars, meaning that they may be released earlier if reincarcerated.
Frosh said he was open to the idea of examining the issue of diminution credits during the regular legislative session, but he added that "it shouldn't take a legislative hearing to figure this one out."
"Releasing someone at the right time ought to be one thing that they're able to get right."
To read the report, see www.baltimoresun.com/prisonaudit