Despite outcries about escalating crime, public officials across the nation are being forced to free thousands of convicts before they have served their full sentences or reached parole.
More and more, the let-em-loose solution is used in response to crisis level overcrowding in prisons. But some penologists have recommended early release. In some cases, judges have ordered it.
Officials in all states with early release programs, in interviews by UPI correspondents across the country, stressed that a large majority of inmates who are freed early are non-violent, low-risk offenders who are approaching their parole dates. However, inmates convicted of violent crimes have also been freed prematurely, officials acknowledged.
Early release measures have resulted in a backlash. In at least one state, Maryland, a outbreak of crime committed by prisoners released early resulted in a decision to build more jails. But in several other states, authorities claim notable success with few parolees returned to prison.
Despite swelling of his state's penal system to 112 percent of capacity, New York state Sen. Ralph Marino, as chairman of the Crime and Corrections Committee, remains opposed to early release.
'You might as well forget about the sentencing process,' says Marino. Early release grows
But early release is growing. Examples:
-In 1980, Texas turned 1,500 inmates loose and placed another 1,500 in halfway houses when a federal court judge ordered a reduction in the state prison population after finding inhuman conditions caused by overcrowding. Eight thousand more inmates are being screened by the Texas Department of Corrections for early release over the next two years.
-Missouri last year freed 300 prisoners to make room in state institutions for inmates who were being housed in swelling county and city jails.
-Wisconsin this year has released 1,214 inmates early as part of a plan to relieve its overloaded prison system.
Among other states where early release has or is being used: California, Maryland, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Arizona. Illinois alone has freed over 4,000 inmates since 1978.
In other states, bills to provide for early release are in the legislative hopper.
New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean resisted pressures from legislators for an early release program, then relented. He now proposes a system similar to one used in Michigan, which let 900 inmates out of jail in 1981 and is preparing to free more this year.
Kean wants a selective program. The parole dates of non-violent offenders would be moved forward 90 days whenever the capacity of the prisons exceeded a certain point. Public outcry
Despite growth in the use of early release, it is not a concept that state officials and politicians can easily embrace, confronted as they are with fading public confidence in themselves, law enforcement and the courts.
'Politicians are afraid of being labeled as being soft on crime,' said Diana Steelman, an official with the National Commission on Crime and Delinquency, based in Hackensack, N.J., the nation's oldest prison reform organization.
She accused legislators of consciously ignoring the root causes of prison overcrowding and exacerbating the problem by passing tougher laws to satisfy the crime-fighting demands of their 'almost hysterical' constituents.
'People think that growing prison populations are inevitable,' Miss Steelman said. 'They're not. It's because of stronger laws passed by legislatures. The sentencing structures in states -- mandatory sentences, longer sentences, cracking down on parole -- are going to create pressures on prison populations.'
Miss Steelman, a former official of the New York City Corrections Department, said politicians, instead, should be conducting reviews of their penal codes to reduce prison populations by instituting more drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, work-release programs and less harsh sentences for minor offenders.
Opponents assert, however, that early release programs lend credence to charges the nation's system of justice is a revolving door that sucks in criminals, coddles them at taxpayers' expense and spits them out to the streets again.
'An individual sentenced to do 'X' amount of time should do that time,' said Massachusetts state Sen. Arthur J. Lewis, an opponent of early release legislation pending in the state Legislature.
The sponsor of the Massachusetts bills, state Sen. George Bachrach, said the public's fervent anti-crime sentiment and resistance among other lawmakers leaves little hope that his proposals will pass.
In Wisconsin, Assemblyman David Travis tried to underscore public resistance to the concept by polling his constituents on their feelings about the state's program.
The survey of 1,265 people found 56.1 percent opposed the concept, 34.8 percent approved of it, 9.1 percent had no opinion.
'The people they (the state) identify for early release are the people who had a higher propensity to violate parole. That's why they chose not to parole them,' Travis said.
Responding to the backlash, particularly from their colleagues in the state Senate, members of the Mississippi House dubbed themselves, with a bit of wit, the 'Get Soft on Crime Committee.' Advantages
Despite the political consequences, early release has gained popularity as the most expedient way of providing a safety valve for the kind of overcrowding pressures that ended in the wholesale slaughter of inmates by other inmates at New Mexico State Penitentiary in 1981.
Supporters also point out that early release allows states to save funds that would otherwise go to support a larger penal population or pay for prison expansion.
'This is not being soft on crime. This is being soft on taxpayers' pocketbooks,' said Oklahoma state Sen. John McCune, the sponsor of early release proposals before that state's Legislature.
In a large majority of cases, the choice to release prisoners early has not been a voluntary one. Rather, states are forced to use early release to satisfy federal court orders to reduce their penal populations.
The mechanisms for early release programs vary although a program developed in 1981 by Michigan has begun to emerge as a model for others.
In Michigan, corrections officials apply to the governor for a declaration of an emergency when the penal system's rated capacity has been exceeded for 30 consecutive days. The governor then has 14 days to declare an emergency.
Once an emergency has been declared, the minimum sentences of all prisoners are reduced by 90 days, allowing those approaching the ends of their terms to be paroled earlier. Inmates qualifying for early release must be screened first by the state parole board.
Susan Herman, an aide to the Michigan House Corrections Committee, said the system has worked well and the corrections department has been contacted by a number of states seeking guidance in initiating their own programs.
Some 900 inmates were released early in Michigan last year. Gov. William G. Milliken recently declared a second emergency after determining that 800 more inmates may have to be freed to reduce the penal population to the rated capacity.
Miss Herman indicated that public discomfort with early release has apparently eased.
'This second round received little press. It was not a big issue,' she said.
In addition to New Jersey, pending legislation in Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Virginia is modeled along the lines of the Michigan program.
California has taken a more innovative approach.
Under a program is known as the 'Travelodge Option,' 700 inmates with less than six months left in their sentences were transferred to motels converted into halfway houses.
The state contracts with private vendors to run the halfway houses. Inmates provide their own room and board by working during the day.
Corrections Department spokesman Phil Guthrie said despite public resistance, there are plans to expand the program.
'There is incredible (prison) population pressure we're feeling now. We're at an all-time high of 29,500 inmates and expect 40,000 by 1987. We're going to have to go to all the means of expansion we can,' he said.
To make early release work, a state must have an efficient inmate classification system, according Missouri Corrections Director Lee Roy Black.
'You have to know who is truely dangerous before you can decide on early release,' says Black. 'The cold-blooded murderer may be a model prisoner inside. If you have better classification, it's easier to get to early release.'
Missouri was forced to free 300 inmates prematurely last year to make room in state institutions for prisoners housed in crowded county and city jails. Screening problem
Despite stringent guidelines defining candidates for early release, questions have been raised about the thoroughness of screening processes and whether they are capable of rooting out convicts bent on committing new crimes.
Black contends the results of Missouri's release of inmates have been impressive.
'We have a very low return rate, about 5 percent or 6 percent, with the group released last year,' he says. 'I think those are exceptional results. Of course, it was a highly selective group.'
The Wisconsin's Health and Social Services Department reported that 17 of the 1,214 inmates released early last year had their paroles revoked after new run-ins with the law.
In Illinois, however, Earl Robinson, an inmate released early, was charged with beating a legislator with a hammer in a Chicago mensroom in January.
Parole system impact
There are other problems. The sudden influx of new parolees is one, says Texas Parole Board member Robert Tapscott. This was the case when 1,500 prisoners were released early last year and another 1,500 were transferred to half-way houses.
Tapscott says parole officers found themselves swamped with new wards. Some have had to handle as many as 90 each. He says the quality of supervision suffers.
'When the caseload gets any higher, you do a lot of crisis work. You have to let 'John' slide over here because 'Sam' has a problem,' Tapscott says.
Maryland's experience is cited to show how an early release program can go wrong.
When Gov. Harry Hughes was elected in 1979, his first appointment was former Corrections Secretary Gordon Kamka, a former Baltimore jail warden with a progressive penal philosophy. Return to jail building
Kamka contended that an expensive and long-planned prison was too costly a remedy to the state's serious overcrowding problems. He convinced Hughes to institute more community-based work release programs.
The state, meanwhile, was ordered by a federal court to reduce prison overcrowding.
Work release, early release and sentence commutation programs were increased.
But large numbers of parolees were re-arrested for new crimes, creating a public uproar which drove the Legislature to resurrect plans for new prisons.
Lawmakers became openly hostile to Kamka, who was eventually fired along with his top aide after a group of work-release inmates were arrested for a crime spree in Baltimore.
Maryland, like many other states with swelling prisons and residents opposed to early release programs, has chosen the only other option: construction of new jails and conversion of existing buildings into temporary jails.
Officials in states with early release programs stressed that at the same time they, too, are pursuing prison construction projects.