HOLLIDAYSBURG - Two local prosecutors who work closely with the West Drug Task Force and the Altoona City Narcotics Bureau are upset that a convicted drug dealer who is a native of Belize in Central America has been paroled to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation before completing his minimum sentence of eight years in a state correctional institution.
Blair County District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio called the move "outrageous," while Assistant District Attorney Pete Weeks, who is the lead drug prosecutor in Consiglo's office, called it "extremely frustrating."
Weeks pointed out that the drug dealer, Randy "Braids" Hernandez, now 26, was arrested in 2008 as a leader of a Brooklyn-based Bloods heroin and cocaine operation.
Then attorney general and now Gov. Tom Corbett announced in late February 2008 that 29 members of the drug organization had been arrested as the result of Operation Blood Clot.
Corbett at the time stated, "This is a very dangerous criminal organization."
Hernandez eventually entered a no-contest plea to drug distribution charges and was sentenced by Judge Elizabeth A. Doyle on July 6, 2009, to serve eight to 16 years in the state prison system.
According to Susan McNaughton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, his minimum release date was Feb. 27, 2016.
However, McNaughton explained that the department has been recommending that noncitizen inmates slated for deportation receive early parole into federal custody, specifically the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
She and a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, Sherry Tate, both explained that it makes sense to deport noncitizens rather than have the taxpayers foot the bill for their incarceration.
The Corbett administration aims to lower the state prison population in Pennsylvania while at the same time providing programs to prevent recidivism.
That effort apparently is paying off, according to McNaughton.
On Tuesday, the Department of Corrections announced that the prison population in 2013 experienced the smallest increase in 24 years.
Since the Shapp administration, the prison population has been growing at about 1,500 annually, McNaughton said.
Under Corbett, the population has grown by 191 inmates in the last three years.
DOC Secretary John Wetzel stated Tuesday, "Instead of an early projected population growth of more than 3,500 inmates, the DOC only has experienced a growth of a total of 191 inmates between January 2011 and December 2013."
As of the end of December the state inmate population stood at 51,512 inmates.
While the effort to rehabilitate and release inmates may be a goal, Consiglio and Weeks are strenuously objecting to a policy of releasing individuals like Hernandez.
McNaughton explained that it is within Pennsylvania law to grant early release to individuals like Hernandez, noncitizens who are in prison for "nonviolent" offenses.
The key word is "nonviolent."
Consiglio and Weeks disagree drug dealing, particularly in Hernandez's case, is an example of a nonviolent crime.
The gang Hernandez was associated with collected guns in the Altoona area and transferred them back to New York for distribution to other gang members, Weeks said.
He said as a rule drug dealers use weapons to protect their supplies of illegal drugs and are often used as threats in the course of business.
Weeks said drugs spur crime by users, and he said the group Hernandez was associated with was "a significant enterprise over a period of years."
He said using the statewide grand jury is expensive and it is used only in significant cases.
Operation Blood Clot was such a case, he said.
In a letter to Consiglio, dated Jan. 30, 2014, the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole stated the board is required to provide written notice of a contemplated parole release to the DA.
"Please be advised that the board has exercised its discretion to parole [Hernandez]."
It gave as reasons, that Hernandez's parole to ICE is in the "best interest of the Commonwealth," that Hernandez participated in institutional programs and that he had a "positive institutional behavior."
The Department of Corrections recommended the parole, and it stated Hernandez accepted responsibility for his offenses.
It stated also there is a deportation order filed against him by ICE and he will be paroled to ICE.
What has Weeks concerned is that even if Hernandez is deported, he has little connection to the land in which he was born.
Hernandez, after being sentenced, learned that he faced deportation because he was not a citizen. He maintained he never realized he was not a citizen, having been raised in New York since he was a young child. He petitioned Judge Doyle asking that he be allowed to withdraw his pleas - which she denied - stating he would never had entered them had he known it meant deportation.
This leads Weeks and Consiglio to believe Hernandez will find his way back to the United States and, as many past cases have shown, back to drug dealing in Altoona.
Tate said if Hernandez is not deported, he will be returned to the prison system.
She said that recently more than 100 noncitizen inmates in the state system have been paroled and deported.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.