Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Secretly Releasing Prisoners, Part II

originally published October 20. 2009

One of the challenges for any criminal justice system is striking the proper balance between protecting public safety and allowing those who harm other people a chance to rehabilitate themselves.

One agency charged with finding this balance is the Maryland Parole Commission, which decides who to release early from prison. It does most of its work with little public accountability, other than the occasional case that blows up when a parolee commits a sensational crime. And parole commissioners don’t need to know a thing about criminal justice; their positions are usually nice little political favors for them or those who recommend them to the governor.

Without public accountability, the Parole Commission is free to manipulate the prison population using parole hearings and diminution credits, such as I wrote about in Leaving Prison Early, Part II: The Parole Commission’s Dirty Little Secret. And rather than behaving as an independent entity, it is more than happy to let prison officials lead it by the nose.

Parole Commissioners are currently helping prison officials push inmates out of prison early in a special, unannounced project. See Secretly Releasing Prisoners. Before I wrote the piece, I had asked for details about these prisoners and the criteria for the program. I wasn’t ready to prejudge. I wanted to evaluate what they were doing.

They denied that they have such a program. More on that below. But through my research on violent offenders I have gained some insight into what is going on.

Parole commissioners are taking prisoners who they originally approved for delayed release and instead are granting immediate release. “Delayed release” usually means that prisoners are approved for parole upon fulfilling a condition of some kind, such as completing a drug treatment program. That would seem to strike a good balance, motivating prisoners to prepare for productive future lives in return for early release, right?

Not under this secret project. One prisoner, for example, was originally approved for release on the condition that he complete a domestic violence program. Considering that he was imprisoned for domestic assault and had a prior conviction for trying to maim someone, one would think this requirement was not only prudent but a basic minimum.

Poof! No more domestic violence requirement. He was released without it, thanks to Parole Commissioner Obie Patterson. I wonder how advocates for the victims of domestic violence feel about that…except they aren’t being told.

The same is true for prisoners who were in vocational training to get them ready for jobs on the outside. Out the door they quietly go, too, before completing their programs.

Then there are the criminals who already went back to prison for misbehavior while on parole. Parole commissioners are setting them free again by “amending” their previous decisions.

Perhaps the most mind-bending case is that of an offender who was arrested for violating parole the same day that that he was sentenced for a new crime. The parole commissioner, Thomas V. Miller III, approved parole for the new crime while the hearing for violating the first parole was still pending. A few days later, Miller dismissed the parole violation charge and closed the case, despite the new crime. (Miller, who wants to be a judge, appears to be well-qualified. He behaved just like many judges who sentence criminals who are already on probation to more probation for new crimes.)

Some more prisoners on the fast track out of prison:

--an inmate who had been revoked twice in the past for violating parole. One of those revocations came only three months before Commissioner Michael Blount “amended” that revocation and granted immediate release.

--a 40-year-old gang member convicted of murder and armed robbery. He had earned enough credits to shave 10 years off his 30 year sentence, but apparently that wasn’t soon enough for prison and parole officials. (Commissioners David Blumberg and Jasper Clay.)

--a gang member imprisoned for gun and drug charges who would normally be released in 2017. (Commissioners David Blumberg and Joseph Bolesta.)

Whether these three examples are representative of this special project I can’t say, but they are among those included. Until the O’Malley administration is forthcoming about what it is up to—the criteria, the number of inmates, their criminal backgrounds, their behavior in prison—we don’t know how many there are and what the justification may be.

And if they are keeping mum because they are afraid that their reasons won’t stand up to scrutiny, they shouldn’t be doing it at all.

The Maryland Public Information Act

Like the federal Freedom of Information Act, Maryland’s Public Information Act is supposed to make public agencies more transparent. In practice, however, state agencies do whatever they can to suppress information.

They will ignore a public information request if they think they can get away with it. They will use the most narrow, crabbed interpretation of the law that they can. They will artificially inflate the fees they are allowed to charge. Or, in the case of the Department of Public Safety, they will simply deny that they are doing what they are doing.

I asked the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services for details about “a special project to release certain inmates early.” Here is their official response: “Currently, there is no special project to release inmates early within the Department.”

This in the face of an e-mail sent by a prison official in July that I quoted in my first article: “The Parole Commission is undertaking a 60-90 day project to review a large number of predominantly non-violent offenders for release. “ It goes on to describe the efforts that prison officials would be making to help.

It’s right there: a 60-90 day project (which I called “special” and which parole records also call “special”), the purpose of which is to review offenders “for release.” The only word missing from the e-mail is “early” but that is what the Parole Commission does, release inmates early.

So I will have to appeal to find out what kind of silly, legalistic, obfuscating logic they are using to deny my request. That’s government in action. That’s the O’Malley Administration in action, the one that says it’s transparent. Silly me, I wanted to believe it.

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