An article in the Jan. 5 Southern Maryland Extra incorrectly characterized court conditions imposed upon James P. Cloud. He was on probation, not parole. The article also misstated the basis for the conviction for which Cloud was serving a jail sentence last year. It was for fleeing and eluding a police officer, driving under the influence and driving with a revoked license. (Published 1/12/03)

James P. Cloud, facing several months in jail on three different charges in Calvert and St. Mary's counties, asked the three judges who sentenced him separately to let him out early for Christmas.

Cloud, 36, needed some good luck. Maryland judges have the power to reduce sentences after they are given, but they say publicly that they rarely do so for defendants who have long criminal records. And Cloud's long history of problems once prompted a parole officer to note in court records that his behavior "shows clearly that he does not believe laws apply to him."

But on Nov. 27, Calvert District Judge Stephen Clagett suspended Cloud's sentence on an assault charge after eight months in jail. Three weeks later, Circuit Judge Marjorie L. Clagett released him after he had served less than six months of a 298-day sentence that began in June for violating his parole.

Then, St. Mary's District Judge John F. Slade III, who had sentenced Cloud in April for his fourth drinking and driving conviction to a 120-day term that would only begin after all other pending Maryland sentences ended, told clerks to set a reconsideration of sentence hearing. On a court document, a note was scribbled above the judge's signature: "Set for hearing before 12/25/02."

On Christmas Eve, Slade cut short Cloud's sentence, which was down to only 19 days because he had served 101 days between his March 2001 arrest and his April sentencing.

Cloud's case highlights a common practice among judges around the Christmas and New Year's holidays: reducing sentences for criminals they think have been rehabilitated. Cloud's case was one of four sentences that Slade reconsidered on Christmas Eve, and prosecutors say he reduces someone's sentence every yuletide without fail.

Charles County Circuit Judge Christopher C. Henderson reconsidered at least six sentences on Dec. 20 and makes no qualms about maintaining a list of people he thinks are worthy of reconsiderations on Christmas. When St. Mary's Circuit Judge C. Clarke Raley and former Charles County Circuit Judge Richard J. Clark were on the District Court bench, they also made a regular practice of giving Christmas sentence reductions.

For the judges, it is a way to show holiday mercy to defendants who have turned their lives around.

"Most of them were 30- to 90-day sentences," said Clark, who has since retired. "Most of the time I thought the guys had served enough time, and I thought I might as well let them out."

Prosecutors, though, say the practice can be abused. And victims have derided such sentence reviews as insensitive. Privately, law enforcement officials often call such reconsiderations "Christmas presents for criminals."

Reconsiderations have come under fire since it was revealed two years ago that no other state gives such power to judges. The rulings are final, and prosecutors cannot appeal them except on technical grounds.

"As a matter of public policy, reconsiderations are a bad idea any time of the year," Charles County State's Attorney Leonard C. Collins Jr. said. Collins, who is president of the Maryland State's Attorneys Association, has lobbied for legislation limiting judicial reconsideration powers. That legislation has failed to pass in the past two sessions of the General Assembly.

Judges say criminals are more likely to complete drug treatment programs or education classes if the courts can hold out the promise of a lower sentence. But the rulings, prosecutors and victim advocates assert, take finality and consistency out of the system.

This was the second time Cloud was the recipient of a Christmas reconsideration. In 1999, Cloud had served about four months of a one-year sentence after three charges related to drinking and driving, including a hit-and-run accident in which the victim suffered a broken hip and ankle. On Dec. 7 of that year, Judge Marjorie Clagett let Cloud serve time on home detention.

On April 3, 2000, the judge reconsidered again and suspended his sentence. Two months later, Cloud was charged with drinking and driving again.

When Slade let Cloud go on Christmas Eve, the decision upset prosecutors because they were given little notice and the hearing was set for a day that many of them had taken off, sources said.

"The sentence they receive is the sentence they should serve," said St. Mary's County Deputy State's Attorney Michael J. Stamm.

Slade did not return phone calls seeking comment. A woman who answered at a number listed in court records for Cloud said he no longer lived there. In court records, Cloud and his family said he had acknowledged he is an alcoholic and was finally on the road to recovery.

Other judges said they shied away from granting reconsiderations to repeat offenders. Henderson said he grants reconsideration in less than 1 percent of his cases. He maintains a list of defendants whom he thinks may be worthy of a reconsideration, and the list is usually whittled down to a handful.

"People change," Henderson said. "In some cases, a reconsideration can be a safety valve."