Monday, February 22, 2010

Early Release for Bad Behavior

originally published January 5, 2009

Criminals in federal prisons have an incentive to behave while in prison. For good behavior they get “good conduct” credits, which reduce the time they actually serve on their sentences. Maryland awards good conduct credits, too, but not for good conduct. Our state uses good conduct credits to get criminals out of prison early, even when they behave badly.

The Division of Correction (DOC), following Maryland law, applies good conduct credits to a prison sentence the day an inmate steps through its doors. For example, let’s say a convicted robber is arrested again and convicted for carrying a gun, for which he gets a mandatory sentence of five years “without parole.” DOC will take that sentence, immediately apply the good conduct credits, and calculate the actual time to be served at about four years. (The inmate will be released even earlier if he accumulates credits for other reasons, such as living in double cells or participating in prison programs.)

Unlike the federal system, which awards credits after the inmate has actually earned them, Maryland reverses the process. Inmates get the credits first. The burden then shifts to DOC to prove bad behavior at administrative hearings, complete with inmate rights.

We could probably tolerate this system if DOC actually took credits away for misbehavior. But the process is not just reversed, it’s perverse. DOC won’t revoke good conduct credits even when it finds inmates guilty of violating prison.

In The Drug Addiction Sham I wrote about three inmates released early from prison in favor of residential drug treatment. All three committed violent offenses while in prison before they were released. Not once, according to DOC records, did a hearing officer revoke the good conduct credits the inmates had received up front.

Justin Bolden, who was imprisoned for an attempted robbery (that ended in the victim’s murder by a co-defendant), was twice found guilty of assaulting another inmate and once possessed a weapon, among other offenses. He was sanctioned by being segregated and/or losing visitation rights. But he got to keep all of his good conduct credits.

Charles Ravenscroft was held in maximum security for behavior that included being “involved in stabbing of other inmate while serving [disciplinary segregation]” and for “assaultive behavior both in DOC and while [in an out-of-state prison.]” He also was convicted in state court for assaulting a correctional officer and sentenced to a year. Yet despite two DOC administrative convictions for assaults on inmates, two more for possessing a weapon and another two for disobeying orders, he kept his good conduct credits, too.

And finally there is Aaron Hatt, who compiled four assaults on correctional staff members as well as numerous other infractions. DOC prepared an Institutional Progress Report for Judge Nancy Loomis-Davis in Anne Arundel County who was deciding whether to take Hatt out of prison and put him in drug treatment. The report described Hatt’s conduct as “absolutely unacceptable institutional adjustment.” This made no difference to Judge Davis-Loomis, who let him out of prison anyway. But at least she wasn’t hypocritical, like DOC, which had failed to take one credit from Hatt for any of his infractions.

DOC hearing officers have complete discretion over revoking good conduct credits for most prison offenses. The only time they must revoke credits is when an inmate fails to cooperate with getting into or completing mandatory educational or remedial programs. (There are also certain “override” situations, such as when an inmate escapes or kills someone.) I get the part about encouraging inmates to participate in programs that could help them when they are released (for which they also get more credits.) But getting good conduct credits without good conduct?

I doubt it’s any coincidence that neither Ravenscroft nor Bolden were ever charged with a prison offense that called for the mandatory revocation of credits, or that the two times Hatt was charged with such offenses he was found not guilty in one and the other charge was “reduced.” Inmates and hearing officers are acutely aware of the impact of credits on prison time. It’s the one thing inmates care about. And from the case history of these three inmates, it’s also the one thing hearing officers don’t want to take.

DOC won’t talk about individual inmates.. And when I asked whether DOC tracks or monitors the revocation of credits, or whether there are unwritten polices not to revoke them, their public affairs office failed to respond.

But if Bolden, Ravenscroft and Hatt are any indication, then we need to rename the credits bestowed upon inmates when they walk through the door, since they aren’t for “good conduct.” How about a nice, truth-in-advertising acronym like HARPP credits? As in, How to Arbitrarily Reduce the Prison Population (without regard to public safety.)

By the way, it isn’t just DOC hearing officers who don’t want to revoke credits. It’s the dirty little secret of the Parole Commission as well. More on that later.

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