13 Investigates: Violent criminals released too soon?
NOTE: This investigative report is up for a national Emmy. Results will be announced at the end of September, 2014.
An Eyewitness News investigation shows many of Indiana's most violent criminals and repeat felons get out of prison decades early. 13 Investigates shows how it happens and why thousands of murderers, rapists, drug dealers and child molesters are back on the street much sooner than expected.
Kate Comiskey's parents say they still struggle with her sudden and tragic death.
"I have a hard time going day to day without my daughter. She was that magical. She was that wonderful a human being," said her father Steve, fighting back tears in his living room in Brown County.
Comiskey, a beloved English teacher at Indian Creek High School in Trafalgar, was driving to work when her car was crushed by an intoxicated driver in November 2004.
Bryan Gooldy, a habitual criminal with a long rap sheet for robbery and drugs, was charged with killing the 24-year-old teacher. His blood tested positive for cocaine, heroin and benzodiazepine at the time of the crash.
"A big part of our lives ended that day," said Kate's mom, Nancy.
Since the crash, the Comiskeys have followed a confusing and often frustrating trail of court appearances that resulted in a 40-year prison sentence for Bryan Gooldy. A procedural mistake by the judge and prosecutor in Monroe County later led the judge to reduce the sentence to 20 years instead. Kate's family began to realize Gooldy would not spend as much time in prison as they had hoped.
"We've known from the beginning that inmates don't serve their whole sentence, but it's hard to think that in a few years, we'll be marking the 10-year anniversary of our daughter's death, and he's going to be celebrating his freedom," Nancy Comiskey told WTHR earlier this month.
What the Comiskeys did not realize is Bryan Gooldy's freedom had already come – more than a year ago.
A 40-year sentence for killing Kate dissolved to just 6 ½ years behind bars.
No one told Steve and Nancy the man who killed their daughter had been released after serving just a third of his sentence.
"Gimme a break!" Steve said after learning of the early release from Eyewitness News. "Why didn't anyone tell us the truth?"
The truth in Indiana is many violent criminals – even convicted killers – serve just a fraction of their prison sentence. Some convicted criminals are able to cut decades off their punishment, thanks to old policies and new ones that are now under close scrutiny.
Sentences cut in half
Each year, about 18,000 convicted criminals are released from Indiana state prisons, according to the Indiana Department of Correction. Nearly all of those inmates serve less than 50% of their original sentence largely because of a program known as "good time credit."
State lawmakers established it in the late 1970s. To help IDOC deal with unruly prisoners, lawmakers doubled the standard sentence for many crimes, then offered convicted criminals the ability to cut their sentence in half through good behavior.
"If they behave, then by Indiana state law, they can earn a day [cut off their sentence] for a day [of good behavior]," explained Jerry Vance, IDOC's executive director of programs. "It's a big incentive… and it means if an individual's time is up based on the way he was sentenced, then we have to release them."
That means most criminals never serve more than half of their sentence – as long as they behave.
But 13 Investigates found inmates who don't behave still get their good time credit anyway.
Bad behavior = good credit
Shawn Corbally was sentenced to 25 years in prison for brutally beating and raping an Indianapolis woman in 2000.
"He threw me out of the car naked and I had to run and knock on a stranger's door for help," the victim told Eyewitness News.
Throughout his prison stay, Corbally was far from a model inmate, according to his IDOC conduct history obtained by 13 Investigates.
Prison records show he was cited 23 separate times for breaking prison rules.
Among the violations: refusing a drug or alcohol test, possessing intoxicants, use of a dangerous weapon, three separate batteries, and conduct listed as disorderly, disruptive and rowdy.
IDOC took away some of Corbally's earned good time credit as a result of the violations.
But most of the deprived credits were later restored – despite a continued pattern of poor conduct – and Corbally received more than eleven years of good time credit that helped him cut a 25-year sentence to less than twelve.
He was released from prison in February. Within a few months, police say the convicted rapist struck again.
Corbally is now accused of two more rapes: one for an alleged sexual assault against an Indianapolis woman inside an apartment building laundry room, and another for allegedly attacking a Greenwood woman in her apartment while her two children slept nearby. Corbally is charged with 15 felonies in connection with the second attack, which investigators say took place just five months after his release for "good behavior."
Asked why Corbally received more than a decade of good time credit despite his lengthy list of conduct violations inside prison, an IDOC spokesman sent Eyewitness News an e-mail defending the department.
"Corbally lost 765 days of credit time, of which only 441 days was restored," wrote IDOC chief communications officer Douglas Garrison, pointing out that prison officials did take disciplinary against Corbally which resulted in a delayed released date. "Corbally spent nearly 15 months LONGER in prison than he would have if he had behaved better."
But why IDOC granted Corbally more than 4,000 days of good time credit (90% of the time he was eligible to receive) despite batteries, dangerous weapons, and rowdy behavior behind bars, is a mystery to some state lawmakers.
"I cannot justify that in any way shape or form," said State Sen. Richard Bray (R – Martinsville), a former prosecutor who now sits on the Senate Corrections Committee. "That doesn't look like good behavior. It's horrible behavior. It shows he's not reformed. It shows he's a danger to society. It shows he's been a danger to the prison itself … not someone who should get good time credit."
Bray says the case is an abuse of Indiana's good time credit law and a big mistake by the department of corrections.
"I think it's necessary we give the department [of corrections] some discretion but this is an abuse of the discretion they have," he said. "The department of corrections just fouled up in my estimation."
IDOC says it's no mistake. The department's policy is to restore good-time credit to any inmate who requests it, if he has not committed a new conduct violation for 90 days.
Subtracting even more
When it comes to getting out of prison early, good time credit is just the beginning.
Each year, thousands of prisoners get more time – sometimes a lot more time – knocked off their sentences by participating in prison programs and classes.
Corbally got his sentence reduced an extra two years for completing an associate's degree in General Arts, getting his GED, and taking hands-on vocational programs in culinary arts and landscape management.
Gooldy reduced his sentence by an extra 3 ½ years by getting an associate's degree in Bible Studies, a bachelor's degree in Organizational Management and participating in a character building program through the prison system.
The programs are available to just about every inmate – regardless of his crime.
Justin Suits, for example, was sentenced to 20 years for killing his girlfriend Marva Rhea Strasser. He strangled her to death at their home near Muncie. At the time, the couple had a newborn baby.
"We figured at least 10 years was going to be spent in prison," said Marva's mother, Sharon.
But Marva's parents just learned Suits was released from prison last month after serving just over 5 ½ years of his 20 year sentence.
Here's how he did it. According to IDOC, Suits received:
- Ten years cut for good time credit
- Two years cut for earning a bachelor's degree in Business Management
- One year cut for getting an associate's degree in Applied Sciences
- Six months cut for participating in a character development program
- Six months cut for completing a series of substance abuse classes
- Four months early release to a community monitoring program
By the time IDOC subtracted all his credits, Justin Suits served only 28% of his sentence behind bars.
"I just feel Marva's life is worth more than that," said her mother.
"It's just unbelievable," added Marva's father, Don, shaking his head. "And there's many, many cases. Ours is just one. It's just case after case like that."
13 Investigates obtained a massive database containing information on more than 30,000 criminals recently released from Indiana prisons. The database shows thousands of batterers, molesters and murderers were able to stack program credits and good time credits to significantly reduce their sentences.
Eyewitness News' analysis shows, on average, child molesters served 44% of their ordered prison sentence, murderers served 42%, and intoxicated drivers who kill people were released after spending just 35% of their sentence in prison.
Don Strasser believes the statistics – and his daughter's case – do not reflect justice for victims and their families.
"I would like to see good time for violent offenders stopped," he said. "I just feel it's a travesty to be able to kill someone and walk away in five and a half years."
98% get out
Officials from the Indiana Department of Correction say good time credit and program credit are important, and they say programs that offer inmates reduced sentences attempt to balance justice with public safety.
"You have to offer inmates something to do besides just sit around," said Vance, who has worked with IDOC inmates for more than 22 years. "Idle offenders cause problems inside institutions, and the more we can keep them productively engaged in programs, the better off everybody is."
He says prison programs are designed to keep not just the prisons safer, but also the community.
"Ninety-eight percent of the people who come to the Indiana Department of Correction are going to return to the community at some point, and our goal is to try to reduce the number of offenders that are re-offending and coming back to us. We can warehouse offenders and send them back out into the community, but we're only going to increase the chances they're going to be committing crimes against you and me."
That's why IDOC offers dozens of treatment programs, educational programs and job programs in an effort to rehabilitate criminals and reduce recidivism – while also giving inmates multiple opportunities to reduce their sentences.
Some of the programs – like GED instruction, literacy education, and substance abuse treatment – are what you might expect inside a prison system.
Then there are the lesser-known inmate programs, such as thoroughbred horse care, cat rescue and dog training.
The state also offers offenders more than 100 apprenticeship and vocational programs, providing opportunities for prisoners to learn skills such as cabinet making, cosmetology, auto repair and firefighting.
Some of the prison classes and courses can be completed within a few months, while vocational and bachelor's degree programs take years.
Inmates like Marty Walters have plenty of time on their hands to complete those programs.
Murderer set for release
Walters is currently at the Pendleton Correctional Facility after pleading guilty to a 1993 burglary and murder in Linton, Ind. He now denies killing Robert Gillett, but Walters admits he did break into Gillett's home to steal money just before the victim was found beaten to death.
"One bad decision ruined my life," Walters said last week during a prison interview with Eyewitness News.
Behind bars for the past 18 years, Walters has taken almost every class and program the prison system has to offer.
"I completed anger management, stress management, parenting classes. I've received a bachelor's degree in general studies with a minor in communications and business information technology, another bachelor's degree from the theological seminary, and I have my barber's license. I've taken over 900 correspondence courses. You do a lot to show you did more than sit in a cell and do nothing," said Walters, wearing a bright yellow prison jumpsuit.
The former professional kick-boxer says he also took a prison substance abuse program, even though he's never had a substance abuse problem. Walter says it earned him a full year off his sentence.
"I took everything I could," he explained.
As a result of his class work and good behavior, the model inmate is scheduled for release this spring after serving 19 years behind bars.
Does a man convicted of murder deserve to have his punishment reduced by 60%, slashing nearly three decades off his 48-year sentence?
Even Walters has to pause before answering that question.
"It's hard for me to justify this. I wasn't the one who put this in place," he said, staring at his hands for a moment before continuing.
"While I've been here I've tried to better myself at every turn. I've done everything I can. If you have people trying to do the right thing, trying to get the earned credit time, trying to better their life, it makes … a big difference. I think the programs are working."
IDOC agrees. The department says some of its programs have yielded great results.
A horticulture program that teaches inmates to grow crops at the state prison in Pendleton has reduced recidivism rates to less than 10% for inmates who've participated. The program includes a 90-day sentence reduction for those who complete 350 hours of instruction and hands-on course work.
"Most of these guys don't come back," said Phil Greenburg, who teaches the horticulture class. "My job is to teach them to be reliable, dependable and trustworthy so they can get a job and keep a job."
"Getting out of hand"
But despite a wide variety of programs for offenders, current statistics show about 38% of all inmates released from Indiana prisons will return to prison within three years for committing a new crime or for violating the terms of their parole.
Shawn Corbally and Bryan Gooldy are among the thousands of inmates who took IDOC classes, completed prison programs, received good time credits and earned early release from prison – only to commit new crimes and return a short time later.
Sen. Bray believes inmates like those are taking advantage of an incentive system that has grown out of control.
"Giving incentives to obey the rules is one thing, but you've now got inmates stacking [program credits and good time credits] to the point where they are really distorting the intended sentence for the prisoner," he said. "As we've added these new programs, we've never made adjustments to keep up and that's where the problems come in."
In addition to an automatic 50% sentence reduction for good time credit, current IDOC rules allow inmates to accumulate a maximum of four additional years off their sentence for completing programs inside prison.
Bray wants that number lowered.
"A lot of these degrees they've been getting have nothing to do with future behavior, it's just a way to get out early," he said. "You've got some of these inmates gaming the system and this is getting out of hand. We need to restrict it more."
Lawmakers taking action
The state's Criminal Code Evaluation Commission is now considering those restrictions.
"The original purpose of good time [credit] was for prison management. The way the incentives have been applied over the years has some of us wondering if it's working the way it was intended," commission chairman Rep. Ralph Foley (R – Martinsville) told Eyewitness News. "I think based on what we're seeing, the panel is likely going to reduce the cap for credit time."
Foley said fixing problems related to inmate credits is "long overdue." The commission will make final recommendations next week, and those recommendations are expected to result in new legislation that will be debated this winter.
Even before those recommendations, fewer inmates are getting sentence reductions for receiving college degrees behind bars.
In a budget cutting move, Indiana lawmakers recently eliminated taxpayer funding for those degrees. About 1,000 prisoners per year had been getting diplomas from Ball State, Indiana State, Purdue North Central, Ivy Tech, Oakland City University and Grace College thanks to a $9 million program paid for by Indiana taxpayers.
13 Investigates discovered, in some cases, inmates used prior college credits – earned years before they committed their crimes – to qualify for sentence reductions under the program.
Following the funding cut, inmates can still receive sentence reductions for earning college degrees while in prison, but they must pay for those courses themselves.
According to IDOC, the department now spends $6.7 million annually on educational programs for prisoners.
Victims' families say they don't want to see convicted felons denied valuable programs; they just don't like all the accompanying time cuts that result in violent criminals being released years – even decades -- early.
They have started an online petition campaign to encourage Indiana lawmakers to restrict good time credit for violent offenders.
"Marva didn't get any good time. She didn't get any time off. She was sentenced to eternity," Don Strasser said.
"I just want somebody to speak for me, to speak for the victims," said Steve Comiskey. "When [convicted killers] get out early … my fear is for other parents and their children. I'm afraid it's going to happen again."