Inmates often released in error, agency admits

About 32 inmates have been mistakenly released from Delaware prisons since February 2007, the state Department of Correction said Friday.

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Carl C. Danberg says he has been working to fix the problem since he took over the DOC.

 

All have since been taken back into custody, but the release problems are persistent and efforts to fix them, at least in the short term, are apparently adding to the confusion, officials said.

Carl C. Danberg, the department’s commissioner, said the inmates were inadvertently set free because of an aging paper-based system that requires employees to manually calculate sentences.

His comments came the day after news broke about prison workers releasing a suspected crack dealer, 58-year-old Ifaghbemo Obajalaiye, about a week ago despite an unpaid secured bail of $2 million.

Danberg said the situation is “unacceptable” and he has been working to fix the problem since he took over the department 18 months ago.

“It is a regular occurrence I personally track,” Danberg said. “We are trying to not just minimize them but eliminate them. Mistakes do happen and we try to keep them to a minimum.”

Danberg could not say late Friday whether any rapists, murderers or other violent criminals had been released because of such mistakes. He promised to provide a list Monday.

But he said most of the mistakes have been caught — and the prisoners taken back into custody — within 24 hours. In some cases, Danberg said, the inmate was recaptured just outside the prison on the sidewalk.

To address the problem, Danberg said, the department is in a “major management restructuring” that he initiated to centralize the processing of inmate releases at the DOC’s Dover office.

He said the agency also is working on improving training and may initiate other policy changes.

In a statement, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner said she was aware of the problem and Danberg’s efforts to correct it.

Spokeswoman Kate Bailey said in an e-mail that Minner “has been extremely concerned about these types of errors” and approved the restructuring plan. “While some progress has been made on this project, it obviously cannot be completed soon enough,” Bailey said.

Danberg said Obajalaiye’s improper release appears to be a result of “human error.”

“We have completed an initial fact finding and it looks like a combination of confusion over a particular form used by the court to notify us,” he said, and a misunderstanding by a records clerk at DOC.

Obajalaiye was arrested in June after a long-running investigation identified him and two others as suppliers of crack cocaine in lower Kent County.

About a week ago, DOC received a document that was to transfer Obajalaiye from the Court of Common Pleas — the lower court in the state’s judicial system– to Superior Court.

The clerk mistook the form for a release order.

And so the man was released without posting bail.

“I am not in any way blaming the courts. This was a Department of Correction mistake,” Danberg said.

The mistake was not caught until Tuesday, when Obajalaiye was a no-show at a Superior Court proceeding in the drug case.

Hours after the DOC was notified of the problem, the defendant was located and taken back into custody.

According to Danberg, the majority of mistaken or early releases over the past two years have involved similar transfers of jurisdictions or changes in status of a prisoner or overlapping sentences from separate charges.

He said there also have been occasions in which such confusion and miscalculations have led to prisoners being held longer than necessary. Those outnumber the prisoners mistakenly released, said Danberg, and in most cases only resulted in an inmate serving an additional day or two.

While not defending the mistakes, Danberg noted that the department regularly releases 25,000 people and admits about 25,000 people every year.

“All of those processes are handled by hand. All sentence calculations are by hand,” he said.

There had been an attempt to automate release calculations, said Danberg, but that has proven unsuccessful because of the complexity of Delaware’s sentencing process.

Superior Court judges, for example, will sentence someone to 5 years in prison but suspend that sentence, in part or entirely, for a lesser punishment of, say, a year in a halfway house followed by supervised release.

In theory, this means the defendant is aware of the exact prison term he will face if he violates the terms of his release, and with that certain punishment over his or her head, is thereby motivated to behave.

On top of that, if a defendant is ordered incarcerated, he or she receives time off for good behavior, further complicating the formula.

And as a final complication, Danberg said, the release calculations have been traditionally handled at the individual prison with each having its own ways of carrying out the procedure.

The process is being centralized in Dover to standardize it, streamline it and reduce errors. The process is about half done, with releases for Young Correctional Institution and the Plummer Center in Wilmington and Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna all being handled in Dover. The rest are still being handed at the individual prisons.

Unfortunately, Danberg said, the process of centralizing the system has brought additional confusion. Obajalaiye was released mistakenly from Vaughn Correctional.

“We need to get by this phase where we are half and half,” he said. Until the changeover is completed, Danberg said, “I’d expect more of these.”

source: http://www.delawareonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080816/NEWS02/808160329/1006/NEWS

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