- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The St. Mary’s jail built to hold inmates awaiting trial or serving time for petty crimes, from its commander’s perspective, took custody last week of a Lexington Park man sentenced to more than four years for a felony drug offense, $15,000 copper theft and a fire in a child’s bedroom.
The sheriff’s captain in charge of the detention center voiced his dismay over the three consecutive 18-month sentences to two county prosecutors in a courthouse hallway immediately after the proceeding, and he reiterated his concerns the next day at the facility in Leonardtown.
“A jail is a secure place for keeping people found guilty of minor crimes or awaiting legal judgment,” sheriff’s Capt. Michael Merican said. “The expectation is to send the hardened criminals to prison. The idea is to keep your shoplifters, child-support offenders, DUI offenders and drug users away from predators ... [who] can corrupt the minor offenders.”
Merican compiled statistics for May of this year showing that 52 percent of sentenced jail inmates statewide are serving one year or longer in a local facility, compared to 81 percent in St. Mary’s jail. Only 3 percent of the sentenced inmates statewide were serving more than 18 months in a local jail, but 10 percent were serving that long in St. Mary’s.
Merican said the local offenders he has serving 18 months in the county jail include two convicted rapists, a child abuser, armed robber and felony sexual offender.
“I’ll bet you the public doesn’t even know they are here,” the captain said. “I believe they belong in prison.”
The captain said he’s had trouble getting answers as to why the felony offenders do their time in the local jail.
“I’ve had assistant state’s attorneys tell me it’s the judges. I’ve had judges tell me it’s the assistant state’s attorneys,” Merican said. “I’ve asked the question of both of them, and that’s what I get.”
St. Mary’s State’s Attorney Richard Fritz (R) said that the law and correctional services code limits a local jail sentence to 18 months in the disposition of a single case, but that consecutive jail sentences totaling beyond that are allowed in the handling of a defendant’s multiple criminal cases. A local sentence sometimes is the appropriate penalty, the prosecutor said, including in the charges against Jeb J. McWade.
“It’s a rarity that that happens, ... [but] in this business, we never say never,” Fritz said. “It’s usually a determination that the person would not successfully make it in the [state] division of corrections.”
St. Mary’s Circuit Judge Michael J. Stamm said during the July 16 sentencing hearing that a parole and probation agent recommended the local sentence in the three cases, in which McWade, a 30-year-old Lexington Park resident, earlier pleaded guilty to first-degree arson, committing a theft scheme and possessing marijuana with the intent to distribute.
“I was going to give you 15 years,” Stamm said. “My understanding is that you have turned a page.”
In July of last year, court papers state, law officers stopped a Jeep speeding on Chancellor’s Run Road and found McWade in the vehicle, along with two bags of suspected marijuana and two suspected oxycodone pills in an unlabeled container. Court papers state that a police search of McWade’s home found another bag of suspected marijuana, a digital scale and three more suspected oxycodone pills.
Detectives investigating a series of burglaries that summer at Super Salvage Inc. in California, where a large amount of copper was stolen, learned that it had been sold at scrap yards elsewhere in Maryland. The investigation led to the arrest of a former employee at the salvage business and a summons charging McWade with burglary and the theft offense.
Before dawn one morning last October, police called deputy state fire marshals to the scene of a fire in a home along Flat Iron Road in Great Mills, and McWade later was arrested on charging papers alleging he had dropped burning papers through a window at the home, starting a fire in a child’s bedroom. A man and woman at the residence quickly extinguished the fire in a plastic clothing container, court papers state, and no injuries were reported.
The judge met in his chambers with McWade’s lawyer and a prosecutor before last week’s sentencing hearing. St. Mary’s Assistant State’s Attorney Daniel White said at the onset of the court proceeding that McWade had been living “the life of a small-time criminal,” but the prosecutor said he would recommend that a five-year prison sentence in each case be suspended to the three consecutive 18-month jail sentences, with reconsideration for release after two years, in part on the condition that McWade pay $15,000 in restitution for the copper theft.
Anne Emery, McWade’s lawyer, said that she was grateful that her client was being given “one more shot” by the judicial system.
“This is certainly the worst trouble he’s ever been in,” Emery said. “I’ve seen a change in this young man, ... in a positive manner. Suddenly, the light bulb has come on.”
Stamm sentenced McWade to five years in prison in each case, suspended to the three consecutive 18-month jail terms, with work-release during the theft sentence and the $15,000 restitution requirement during five years of supervised probation.
The judge issued his standard warning that any violation of probation would leave McWade facing more than 10 years in prison, and that his conduct would be a factor in any chance of reconsideration.
“The key is in your pocket, now,” the judge said.
Fritz later said at his office across the hall from the courtroom that the sentencing guidelines range calculated by the probation agent called for a total sentence for McWade of between five and 17 years in prison, but that the agent’s recommendation of the local sentence was consistent with a trend.
“What has to be kept in mind is the thrust of where society is going,” Fritz said. “I don’t necessarily agree with it, but they’re trying to preserve the penitentiaries for the most violent criminals. You can see that all the way through the judges. You can see that all the way through the division of parole and probation.”
Merican said that the St. Mary’s jail does not have programs to rehabilitate felons or people serving long sentences, and that more inmates serving more time in the local jail has been accompanied by more assaults, more contraband materials being smuggled into the facility and a negative impact on the petty offenders.
“They are my predators. Once they get here that long, they become institutionalized and they become comfortable,” the captain said. “They disrupt our activities, [and engage in] flushing things down the toilet, making homemade weapons, tattooing each other and getting into fights.”
Merican added that long-term inmates recruit work-release and weekend inmates to bring in contraband items, and to disseminate “gang intelligence” when they go out of the facility.
Convicted criminals generally can be released after serving only 25 percent of a local jail sentence, the captain said, while people sent to state prison for violent offenses must serve half their sentence.
“The reason is that nobody anticipates local jails housing violent offenders,” Merican said.
The two candidates in this year’s circuit court judgeship election expressed caution about sentencing people to consecutive 18-month terms in the local jail.
“There are times when it’s appropriate,” Joseph Stanalonis, an assistant state’s attorney, said at his office, “but those times are rare.”
Circuit Judge David W. Densford, the appointed incumbent, said that he respects the concerns of the jail’s staff, as he weighs the needs to protect the public and to find the correct sentence for an offender. “Judges try to fashion sentences,” he said, “for individual cases and each defendant.”