Inmates’ early release worries prosecutors

By Bill Hankins
The Paris News

Published December 9, 2007

A new and serious issue relating to justice is developing across the state of Texas, and local district and county attorneys are being caught up in the state’s drive to clear prison beds.

To do so, parole officials are under pressure to release some convicted people early to have space for more violent offenders.

“Clearly, this is a money issue,” said Lamar District and County Attorney Gary Young. “The state has to find a way to pay for these folks to be housed in prisons. But justice is not being served when someone does eight years of a life sentence.”

Young was referring to a Lamar County case in which Clifton Blackshear was sentenced in 1999 to life in prison for the manufacture of a controlled substance.

He was released earlier this year and is back in Lamar County.

In another Lamar County case, Timothy Brett Taylor received a three-year sentence and began serving his time in April of this year.

Parole officials already have announced his release. He is back in Lamar County.

“We are back to where we were in the late eighties and early nineties,” Young said. “Prisons are full again and the parole system is working to free up beds.”

“It is sad when defendants are getting their first parole consideration when they are still in our county jail awaiting transfer to the actual prison,” Young said .

That has happened in some Lamar County cases in which an inmate received his parole while still in Lamar County Jail.

“There are people who know how to work the system that are agreeing to go to prison for what appears to be decent five or six-year sentences who know they will be out in less than a year,” Young said . “Many of them would rather do that than be on probation for two or three years.”

Assistant County Attor-ney Bill Harris said he was amazed at the defendant’s reaction in a recent burglary of a habitation case.

“I was prepared to offer him a lengthy probation, no jail time, but he told me he just wanted a sentence,” Harris said. “He knows that on non-violent offenses, inmates are doing about a month and a half for each year of their sentence. He knows he is going to be out of prison in less than a year, so why would he want to be on probation six or seven years, when he can go to prison and get it over with in just months.”

State prison officials report there are 738,000 beds for adults in the state system, and that number is being reached on a regular basis, so release of some prisoners in non-violent cases may be pushed ahead of their scheduled release.

The overcrowding of state prisons puts pressure back on county jail systems, which have a 71,962-bed capacity in Texas. That could cause some overcrowding in county jails in upcoming months.

Texas HB 337, which addresses the issue, requires the courts to sentence probation violators appropriately and not revoke them to prison for minor mistakes.

That also means more offenders remain on the streets even if they have failed to meet all the probation rules and have committed some repeat offenses.

One of the tools used by parole officials is a different system of calculating time prisoners serve.

“Some prisoners are getting eight to one credit for good time,” Harris said. “The way they are calculating good time is perpetrating a fraud on the citizens of the state of Texas, because they are giving these guys so much good time, they are discharging their sentences way before the law says they are actually eligible for parole.”

Contrast that with the Lamar County Sheriff’s system, which makes prisoners serve more of their sentences.

“The system that Sheriff B.J. McCoy has in place is the first 30 days are flat time, and after that 30 days, if a prisoner is a good prisoner, he will get two for one credit,” Harris said. “That means a 60-day sentence will be served in 45 days.”

Victim and Witness coordinator Alan Hubbard said the release system used today is not fair for victims of crime.

“They leave the courtroom after sentencing feeling a sense of justice only to learn later the defendant is serving little of that time,” he said. “Juries cannot be told the sentence they hand down can be reduced tremendously, and the juries could not consider that in sentencing if they knew.”

Hubbard said another problem is that prison officials are alerting the county attorney’s office after a prisoner already has been released and not giving time for a county attorney to contest that release.

Harris said the federal courts and prison system work a lot different.

“A sentence to federal prison will mean a prisoner will serve most of their sentences before they have a possibility of parole,” he said.