Arkansas stripped parole eligibility from 390 inmates last year; the state is fixing it… slowly

By: - July 17, 2023 7:00 am

Arkansas prison officials will review sentencing records for 391 inmates convicted of residential burglary who lost parole eligibility last year after a mistake. (Darrin Klimek/Getty Images)

Arkansas prison officials inched closer last week to restoring parole eligibility for some of the nearly 400 home burglars whose chances for early release were revoked last year thanks to a bureaucratic mistake.

In an advisory opinion handed down last week, Attorney General Tim Griffin clarified several questions for Correction Secretary Joe Profiri about a new state law that takes effect Aug. 1.

That law — Act 683 of 2023 — asserts that the state Legislature didn’t intend to change the parole eligibility rules for those who committed residential burglary before 2015.

Arkansas Secretary of Corrections Joe Profiri (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

The mixup started last year with an attorney general’s opinion that differed from how the Parole Board had been calculating parole eligibility for residential burglars.

The opinion led the Department of Corrections to remove parole eligibility for hundreds of inmates who had committed residential burglary and, in a handful of cases, reportedly reincarcerated several who had been released on parole.

The move lengthened many prison terms by decades.

“Starting August 1, 2023, ADC should recalculate parole-eligibility dates for any offenders impacted by Act 683,” Griffin wrote in Tuesday’s opinion.

 

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The confusion stemmed from a 2015 criminal justice reform law that reclassified residential burglary as a violent felony offense.

The distinction is important because of the parole implications. Since 2001, offenders who have been convicted of multiple violent felonies must serve their entire prison sentence.

From the time residential burglary was reclassified in 2015 to last year, the Arkansas Department of Corrections applied the new provision only to residential burglaries committed after the act’s effective date – April 1, 2015. 

Everything changed in May 2022 with an opinion from then-Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who told the prisons agency that residential burglary convictions prior to April 1, 2015, should also be considered violent offenses for the purposes of determining parole eligibility on subsequent convictions.

That meant parole eligibility for 391 inmates was eliminated, according to the agency.

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That angered defense attorneys, inmates’ families and even some lawmakers who viewed the shift as unfair to offenders, who in many cases agreed to plead guilty after assurances they could be released from prison in a few years. 

Max Hatfield, a Central Arkansas teacher, said the May 2022 change caught his family by surprise when they checked his stepson’s parole eligibility date online, discovering it had changed from July 2023 to 2042.

“We had no idea what had happened,” he said.

The family had been busy lining up transportation, housing and other arrangements in hopes of a July release. 

Hatfield readily acknowledges that his stepson has made mistakes — mostly related to substance abuse — that come with a price to pay, but he also notes the unfairness in changing rules after the fact. 

With parole off the table, his stepson likely would’ve gone to trial instead of taking a plea bargain.

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Now, families like Hatfield’s must wait. The only information he has been able to get out of the Corrections Department is that nothing will change until Aug. 1. 

Then, what? 

Corrections spokeswoman Dina Tyler in response to questions this week said the agency is reviewing parole eligibility of all those whose potential release dates were recalculated after last year’s AG’s opinion. 

“For those offenders to whom Act 683 applies, the date will be recalculated,” Tyler said. “Those who are immediately eligible for consideration for parole will be considered as quickly as possible, and the remainder will be subject to the timelines that existed prior to the initial recalculation” last year.

This will apply even to offenders granted parole who had it revoked or were never released due to the 2022 opinion.

It covers those who committed their crimes before April 1, 2015, and were sentenced before May 23, 2022 — the day Rutledge released her opinion.

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin, left, gestures during a news conference at the Arkansas Capitol. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

“The offender should be reconsidered by the Parole Board, which is required to make its release decisions based on the law in effect at the time the new decision is made,” Griffin wrote.

But this process won’t be fast. Act 683 states that it does not apply to offenders whose sentencing orders “expressly designate” that the sentence was handed down under the 2015 statute that would prohibit parole eligibility. 

That means agency staff are having to pull and review each offender’s sentencing order. 

“It is not yet known how many offenders are impacted by Act 683 and will have their dates recalculated…” Tyler said. “ This is a manual process so it will take time.  We are working as quickly as possible.”

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Hunter Field
Hunter Field

Hunter Field is a veteran Arkansas journalist whose reporting on the state has carried him from military air strips in northwest Arkansas to soybean fields in the Arkansas delta. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.

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