Crime Scenes: Counting time in prison

It is of unending confusion — and frustration for victims — that people convicted of crimes and sentenced to prison rarely serve the sentences the judges dole out.

Convicts are required by Maryland law to serve at least half their sentence for violent crimes and a quarter of their sentence for nonviolent crimes. Corrections officials say that most inmates locked up for violent offenses serve 70 percent to 80 percent of the sentences given by judges.

In addition to parole and probation, inmates accumulate what are called "diminution credits" — in layman's terms, "good conduct" credits — that help them to freedom.

Trying to calculate these credits confounds even the best of bean counters. You "earn" 10 credits per month if convicted of a nonviolent crime and five credits per month if convicted of violent crimes. That "currency" is then somehow translated into reduced sentences.

But that's just the start. Rarely do inmates come with just one conviction. They're often serving time on various crimes from various convictions at various times. Sentences frequently overlap, as do credits, and sorting through the morass of numbers, such as which credit to assess to which sentence, can be mind-numbing.

Just ask the judges of the Maryland Court of Appeals, who accepted a case in which an inmate claimed he didn't get enough credits to reduce his sentence. The judges made no secret of what they were getting into. The opening line of the opinion issued this week:

"This case is about the calculation of diminution credits, a topic that strikes dread into the hearts of many trial and appellate judges."

That very first sentence required a footnote from Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr.: "For example, Professor Ester promised me that, if I finished law school and passed the bar examination, there would be no more math. He was mistaken."

The court took up the case of Eric Holbrook, who was convicted in 1999 in Wicomico County of several offenses, including distributing cocaine. A judge gave him a five-year sentence that included prison and suspended time.

Holbrook was paroled in April 2003 and "while on parole committed an assault in the second degree," the Court of Appeals said. On May 5, 2006, a judge ordered Holbrook to serve five years in prison for violating the terms of his release. The judge also sentenced him to three years in prison for the assault, with the two sentences to be served consecutively.

While in prison, Holbrook accumulated 597 good-conduct credits. But the Division of Corrections allowed only half of them, reducing the number to 299.

When determining credits on inmates serving multiple sentences for different crimes, prison officials aggregate the total years into a single "term of confinement." If that term includes a violent or drug offense, then the inmates gets only five credits a month, instead of 10, even if there are other crimes that are less severe.

That's what happened in Holbrook's case. The state counted his pre-parole and post-parole time as one, reasoning that Holbrook was never out of their supervision even though he was out of prison. Holbrook argued that the term "term of confinement" was too vague.

The Court of Appeals agreed, noting that the 1999 drug conviction — "the conviction and sentence upon which the division relied to disqualify Holbrook from receiving 10 good-conduct credits a month" — had expired by the time he had committed his next offense. Other convictions in 1999 had not expired, but were for crimes for which he could earn 10 credits.

Judges ordered the prison system to restore the credits owed to Holbrook, and for the state to cover the cost of his appeal.

Still, the judges noted that the legislature, which wrote the rules, "relies deliberately" upon prison officials "to navigate the 'arcane world of diminution credits' and to fulfill, on a daily basis and at the individual level, its intent and purpose. … We appreciate the difficulty of that assignment."

But while this case may help clarify at least one part of the "arcane world of diminution credits," it does little to help Holbrook. Even earning just half the credits he was owed, he still got released from state prison in 2009, after having served three years of his five-year sentence.

But he's not free and clear. Holbrook is now in the custody of the feds, awaiting trial on charges filed in June in U.S. District Court in Baltimore that he distributed cocaine and heroin.

The federal system has no parole, no probation and no good-time credits.

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