After Gregg Thomas pleaded guilty in 2004 to killing a teenager, a Baltimore judge ordered him to serve 15 years in prison. He was out in less than 10, and by last week he had been charged in the shooting ambush of off-duty Baltimore Police Sgt. Keith Mcneill.
The shooting, which left Mcneill in critical condition, put the spotlight on a poorly understood feature of corrections policy that reduces most Maryland sentences. Thomas was able to leave prison early because he had received credit for good behavior and had completed work and education programs that helped him shave off more than a third of his sentence.
Such programs are commonplace across the country, and corrections officials describe them as essential enticements that help maintain discipline and prepare thousands of inmates to re-enter society. But the system can frustrate victims' families, who can be surprised by a prisoner's early release. And for proponents of tougher sentencing laws, the shooting of Mcneill is the most recent example of an early release gone wrong.
State Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who has sponsored legislation to toughen sentences for gun offenders, called the system of allowing credits for violent criminals "a total waste of time."
"I think it's very rare that you rehabilitate a murderer," he said.
But Antoine Payne, a former inmate who runs an East Baltimore Christian group for ex-prisoners, said the credits are the justice system's way of accounting for the good decisions convicts make after their sentences are handed down.
"There does come a time when a person has accomplished much and grown, and early release makes sense," said Payne, who runs the Philemon Ministry. "The reality is, even the judge doesn't have everything before him to make the absolute decision."
Cheri Nolan, president of Justice Solutions of America, which advocates for inmates, said states have been expanding the use of credits to reduce prison populations.
"The force behind it has really been budgetary," said Nolan, a former official at the Justice Department. "It's forced governors to take a second look at sentencing policies."
Even the federal prison system, a bastion of lengthy and mostly unassailable sentences, might be in for change. A bill making its way through the Senate with bipartisan support would expand early release in federal prisons.
Maryland's rules are based on a complex system of credits that has led inmates and corrections officials in some cases to come to vastly different conclusions about release dates. The state can reduce sentences based on factors that include the type of offense, the completion of high school courses and vocational training.
State corrections officials said the credits toward early freedom are an important way of driving down recidivism.
"Making inmates successful taxpaying citizens who are in much better shape when they come out of prison than when they entered is the goal," said Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the state corrections department. "Inmates who take advantage of the credits system often stand to benefit tremendously from their education and job training."
Thomas had participated in those programs, and a public defender said at a court hearing that her client had found work, but police say his efforts at self-improvement behind bars didn't keep him out of trouble.
Mcneill, a 19-year-veteran assigned to Baltimore's Eastern District, was critically wounded when Thomas was attacked him March 14 outside a Belair Road auto shop, police say. The incident came just over a year after Thomas' release from what was technically a 30-year sentence.
Thomas was arrested in 2003, a little more than a week after 17-year-old Davon Lindsey was shot and killed in the 900 block of N. Chester St. in the Middle East neighborhood. Police received a tip and raided his aunt's home there, where Thomas was living, and found the murder weapon.
Thomas' aunt told investigators that he and Lindsey had been involved in a dispute over drug turf, according to court records. Thomas initially said he killed Lindsey in self-defense but eventually agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder.
Circuit Judge John M. Glynn handed down the maximum 30-year sentence but immediately suspended half of it. Though the suspended portion of the sentence would hang over Thomas' head when he got out, he would not have to serve it if he stayed out of trouble.
At the hearing, Glynn explained that Thomas probably would serve even less than 15 years. That's because Thomas was allotted credits for good behavior as soon as he stepped into prison.
Prisoners serving sentences for violent crimes get five days a month removed from their sentences for good conduct; the same rate applies to some drug-dealing offenses. Everyone else is given 10 free days per month. Those convicted of serious sexual offenses against children under age 16 cannot receive credits.
The credits brought Thomas' active sentence down to about 13 years. Thomas earned more time off for "multiple jobs and education programs," according to Vernarelli. Corrections officials did not release details of the programs.
Such efforts can earn prisoners another five days per month, and they keep that time regardless of any disciplinary issues. Good-behavior credits, on the other hand, are subject to revocation if an inmate breaks prison rules.
"Anything can mess you up," said Edward Burton, who was released this month after serving a drug sentence. "I tried to be a loner. That way you look out for yourself; that way you don't get in trouble."
When the number of credits plus time actually served equals the total sentence, the corrections department is required to release an inmate. Those released remain under supervision for the balance of the time they would have spent in prison.
Things can get tricky when, for example, a prisoner convicted of a violent crime gets out early because of credits but is soon convicted of a nonviolent offense. Disputes can arise over how quickly credits will be awarded.
When corrections officials and prisoners disagreed vehemently about applying credits, the disputes have ended up in the state's top courts.
In one ruling, the Court of Appeals concluded that there were so many overlapping rules that any change in favor of one prisoner would probably hurt another. In a separate 2010 ruling in favor of a prisoner, Judge Glenn T. Harrell, Jr. called the system "a topic that strikes dread into the hearts of many trial and appellate judges."
Corrections officials estimate that prisoners convicted of violent crimes typically serve about 75 percent of their sentences; other inmates serve around 60 percent.
Altogether, Thomas earned five years and 33 days off his sentence.
When Vaughn Lindsey saw that Thomas had been accused of a new crime, he was surprised that his son's killer was out of prison.
"I think he should have got more time," Lindsey said. "He shouldn't have got out as early as he did."
Russell P. Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center, said it can be difficult for victims and their families to discern the time a convict is expected to serve under Maryland sentences.
Judges are supposed to say at sentencing when a prisoner will be eligible for parole — a date separate from, but connected to, the release date under the credit system. But Butler says they rarely do.
The result, Butler said, is a feeling that "people are beating the system."
An easy answer, he suggested, would be to describe sentences as a range between the maximum and minimum, rather than as a fixed number. That practice is common in other states.
Early releases can draw fire from officials as well. The day Mcneill was shot, authorities announced a federal gun charge against Arthur Jeter, who had earned early release after being convicted of robbery in connection with the fatal beating of Zachary Sowers in 2007.
Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein said in a statement that Jeter, who had earned nearly four years off an eight-year term, did not deserve to be out prison.
Brochin, the state senator, has proposed legislation that would bar offenders who used a firearm from earning credits.
A legislative analysis said that change would affect about 300 inmates a year and — using a conservative estimate — could cost $660,000 a year because of extended prison sentences.
Brochin said the added expense would be worth it because the system doesn't account for "the cost to society by making another woman a widow or making the guy's kids orphans."
Bernstein, who has prioritized the prosecution of violent offenders, said he supports stiffening sentencing rules as a way of keeping criminals "off the streets longer."
That's a view shared by Marilyn Mosby, a former Baltimore prosecutor who is running against Bernstein in the Democratic primary this year. She said defendants should serve about 85 percent of the time a judge hands down — leaving the option open for a more limited credit system.
"You let them out early and look what happens," she said. "You're going through this whole system again."
But Russell A. Neverdon Sr., who is running for state's attorney as an independent, said he worries that eliminating credits would reduce the incentive for inmates to educate themselves in prison.
"It's not going to do society any good if you're ... not focused on rehabilitating them," he said.
Rules for early release
Most prisoners are awarded good-conduct days, but the rate depends on the type of crime.
0 per month: serious sex crimes against children under age 16
5 per month: drug dealing and violent crimes
10 per month: all other crimes
In addition, prisoners who have not been convicted of serious sex crimes against children under 16 can earn:
5 per month for work or other training
5 per month for working at their institution
5 per month for doing special projects
A prisoner can earn no more than 20 credits a month. Good conduct and special projects credits can be taken away if an inmate breaks the rules.
Source: Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services