Military Convicts Do Time But Also Draw Paychecks

HAD THEY BEEN civilians, they wouldn't be drawing paychecks now. But 665 people in U.S. military prisons are getting basic pay and benefits totaling an estimated $1 million each month.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Michael Pelkey killed his pregnant wife and dumped her body in the woods, where it was ripped apart by wild animals. Since his murder conviction in April, the former Fort Carson, Colo., soldier has been sitting in a prison cell - and pulling in $11,415 after taxes.

Andre Carter raped a waitress in his Colorado Springs apartment and threatened to kill her if she told the police. The Army sent the sergeant to prison - but kept him on the payroll for more than a year at a cost of $20,788.

William Bauman repeatedly molested a 10-year-old child. Two years later the former Air Force Academy instructor still draws a captain's annual pay of more than $30,000.

Even Francisco Duran, who is accused of firing at the White House in October, was on the Army prison payroll for two years while serving a five-year sentence for a 1991 conviction on aggravated assault. Duran was paid $17,537.

These men are convicted felons serving time for violent crimes. If they had worked for a public or private employer, they would have lost their jobs and their paychecks. But the military keeps paying hundreds of service members behind bars under a well-intentioned but archaic policy that will come under review by Congress this year.

Congressional inquiry promised

"There will be some type of investigation," said Brian Keeter, a spokesman for Rep. Robert Dornan, R-Calif., the new chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on personnel.

"Here are convicted criminals, supposedly paying a debt to society, who in turn are receiving tremendous financial benefits from the American taxpayers," Keeter said. "Clearly, that's not right."

An estimated $1 million is spent each month on basic pay and benefits to about 665 people in military prisons, according to a recent review of military computer records by the Dayton Daily News in Ohio.

Some inmates even get raises.

In addition, their families continue to receive free medical coverage, discounts at base stores and other military benefits.

At the military's maximum-security prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., about 12 percent of the 1,350 prisoners are on the payroll, according to spokeswoman Janet Wray. Most inmates keep their money in an account at the jail - where the balance is $260,303.57. But they can make withdrawals at any time for anything.

Their victims, however, receive no compensation from the military.

Rationale dates to late 1800s

Pentagon officials say they are taking a close look at the policies that allow such injustices.

"The rationale for paying troops in prison goes back a long way," said Air Force spokesman Maj. Tom Schultz.

In the late 1800s, soldiers often served time, then went back on active duty. Or they were stationed in remote outposts, and their families needed money to get home.

"Times have changed, but the laws set by Congress haven't," Schultz said.

One of those laws is that no court-martial sentence is final until the "convening authority," usually the base commander who has little or no legal experience, approves it. This "first appeal" can take anywhere from three to 18 months.

Until then, convicted military criminals continue to receive pay - even after they've been locked up.

Military courts usually refuse to take away all pay and allowances when the defendant's family needs financial help. Attorneys often argue for leniency when children are involved.

"There's an underlying assumption that the military should take care of its families," said Michael Duncan, a former Army defense attorney who practices in Colorado Springs. "After all, they make a lot of sacrifices - moving around, being alone for long periods, helping out the unit - to support the service member."

Families don't always benefit

But one problem is that the military can't guarantee families will get the money promised them in court. It has almost no control over how inmates spend their pay.

"You just have to count on the good will of the prisoner," said Maj. Wayne Anderson of the legal office at Fort Carson. "We've seen cases where a soldier sets up an allotment for the family, then cancels it once he's in jail. It's extremely frustrating for us."

One way around that, Anderson said, is to take away a soldier's pay in court and have the post commander restore a portion of it as long as the soldier voluntarily sends it to the family. Such administrative measures can be revoked without going back to court. The tactic is being tried with a Fort Carson sergeant recently convicted of child molestation.

1996 budget may draw the line

The Pentagon says it is giving "serious consideration" to policies that allow prisoners to be paid.

For example, the 1996 defense bill - which must be approved by Congress - would enforce a court-ordered forfeiture of pay and allowances at the time of sentencing, rather than waiting for the commander's approval.

And a recent defense policy change also allows civilian courts to order military prisoners to pay alimony, child support or commercial debts.

But the military has not looked at whether its courts should have the power to let criminals keep their pay, even if the objective is to help the family. Rep. Dornan plans to propose that total forfeiture be mandatory for certain crimes, including those involving violence or child abuse.

------------------------------------- HOW MILITARY FELONS GET PAID -------------------------------------

Most state and federal entitlements are cut to civilians sentenced to prison, even most of their Social Security benefits. But a military judge or jury can actually allow defendants to keep all or some of their compensation:

-- Convicted enlisted service members are usually busted in rank to private. At that level, they continue to get basic pay, clothing expenses and even housing allowances for their families until their enlistment date expires or they are discharged after their final appeal.

-- Convicted officers are in a separate category that allows them to keep their salary for much longer. A military court cannot reduce the rank of officers or take away their pay until all appeals are exhausted and they are dismissed.

Officers also get a housing allowance for their families and $146.16 a month for food, even though they are fed in prison. Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph