Standoff highlights `no parole' confusion

Suspect had served only part of 5-year term

May 10, 2007|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

In 2004, Baltimore prosecutors secured a prison sentence of five years without parole for Robert Looney, a city man who had been convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

So why did Looney, an attempted murder suspect who barricaded himself in a West Baltimore neighborhood Tuesday, walk out of prison after serving just over three years?

It's because "five years without parole" tells only part of the story.

Like all inmates, Looney was able to earn "diminution credits" for good behavior, working and education. He piled up enough credits to be released on mandatory supervision after serving 38 months and five days of a 60-month sentence.

"There is no truth in sentencing because of how confusing the process is," said Russell P. Butler, director of the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center. "Nobody knows when anybody is going to get out."

Inmates can be released in two ways: through parole or on mandatory supervision. Looney's sentence made it impossible for parole commissioners to use their discretion to release him. But his diminution credits -- available to all inmates -- meant that the state prison system had to release him on Oct. 23, 2006.

David R. Blumberg, who as chairman of the parole commission has given lectures on diminution credits, said the average inmate earns between five and 10 days off a sentence every month. Inmates cannot earn more than 15 days per month.

Someone convicted of a violent offense, such as being a felon in possession of a handgun, typically serves 67 percent to 70 percent of his sentence, Blumberg said. Nonviolent offenders can serve even less time because their lower security level gives them more opportunities for jobs, education and other privileges that lead to credits.

Inmates serving life sentences -- whether with or without parole -- still earn diminution credits. But they don't leave prison without the governor's approval.

Blumberg said the system of how credits are calculated was established by the General Assembly and can only be adjusted by legislation. He said there have been no changes to it in years.

Looney, 30, has served at least two stints in prison. He was convicted of a Baltimore County armed robbery in 2001 and was on probation for that on Aug. 18, 2003, when he was shot in the legs on Clifton Avenue in West Baltimore.

Police searched Looney's car, found a .22-caliber revolver and charged him. He later told the court that he was "no angel," but that he didn't know there was a weapon in his trunk.

If he had known, Looney said, he would have used it to defend himself.

A jury convicted him of having a handgun in his vehicle and of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Circuit Judge Kaye Allison sentenced him on June 24, 2004, to five years for the former charge and a concurrent five years without parole -- a sentence required by state law -- for the latter.

As is typical in cases where the defendant has been in jail until trial, the judge backdated Looney's sentence to Aug. 18, 2003, the day he was arrested.

While on mandatory supervision, Looney was monitored by a probation agent, said Elizabeth Bartholomew, a spokeswoman for the Division of Parole and Probation.

But on the afternoon of May 1, police were called to a shooting inside a home in the 3600 block of Springdale Ave. in North Baltimore.

Gordon VanPutten had been shot several times in the groin and hand, according to charging documents, as someone robbed the house. Witnesses identified Looney as a suspect, the documents say.

A frantic-sounding Looney spoke with his probation agent and arranged a meeting Monday, Bartholomew said, but he never showed.

The next day, Looney barricaded himself in a West Baltimore apartment before officers were able to take the struggling man into custody about 8 a.m.

Assistant State's Attorney Grant McDaniel recognized Looney as the man he had put behind bars in 2004. McDaniel and other prosecutors were curious why he was not still in prison.

Confusion about release dates is not limited to the public, Butler said. Even prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges have a hard time keeping track.

He said this points to a need for change. He said he'd like to see judges announce their sentences as a range instead of a flat -- and potentially misleading -- term.

For example, a 10-year-sentence would be explained in court as a five- to 10-year sentence. Butler said this would help victims' families know the minimum amount of time the prisoner will serve.

"Everybody would rather be told the truth," he said, "than be told something that's a fa?ade."

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