Parole in Arizona: A Legal Illusion

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Jail Time and Parole

You may be surprised to learn that Arizona abolished parole for murderers in 1993. What’s even more surprising is that defendants continued to be sentenced to “life with chance of parole” after 1993. Arizona Republic reporter Michael Kiefer wrote an excellent article called “The Myth of Parole in Arizona” that can be found at AZCentral. All facts and quotes come from his article.

In 1993, the Arizona Legislature passed a Truth in Sentencing law that abolished parole and disbanded the parole board. The Arizona Board of Executive Clemency was created to take its place. The sentence was changed from “life with chance of parole after 25 years” to “life with chance of release after 25 years. As Mr. Kiefer explained:

“Life with chance of release, in effect, is a mitigated sentence, meaning it is imposed when there are circumstances that render the crime less horrible than a murder that calls for natural life or death. Life sentences also may be imposed for conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, sexual conduct with a child, and in certain cases where a repeat offender is deemed incorrigible.” Originally seen published on http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-investigations/2017/03/19/myth-life-sentence-with-parole-arizona-clemency/99316310/

 

Although the sentences sound similar, the change meant that the only chance for release was to obtain a pardon or sentence commutation from the governor:

“But under the new system, there is no automatic hearing. Instead, the prisoner has to petition the Board of Executive Clemency, which would likely require a lawyer. The board can then choose to hold hearings on the prisoner’s likelihood to stay out of trouble and make a recommendation to the governor. Rather than parole, the prisoner needs a pardon or a sentence commutation. Only the governor can provide those.” First see on http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-investigations/2017/03/19/myth-life-sentence-with-parole-arizona-clemency/99316310/

 

Only four people were accidentally sentenced to “life with parole” in 1994 and 1995. The Arizona Republic reviewed relevant sentencing minute entries between January 1, 1994, and January 30, 2016, and found that 248 offered a chance of parole which contradicted the law. 175 of those sentences were imposed in Maricopa County Superior Court. Of these 248 sentences, 90 came about through plea agreements.

Apparently, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges never informed defendants that parole had been abolished and their only hope was to try to obtain a pardon or sentence commutation by filing a petition with the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency. Mr. Kiefer interviewed several prisoners who informed him that they were never told that parole didn’t exist and that they relied on the chance of parole when they decided to enter into plea agreements. The first prisoner will be up for illusory parole in 2019.

Arizona politicians have not addressed the issue. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery stated that he thinks the solution is just to admit that the sentences were in error and correct the paperwork. Kathy Brody, Legal Director of the ACLU of Arizona, remarked: “It’s a contract. It’s a deal. How can you say it’s a knowing and voluntary decision (by the defendant) if it’s an incorrect sentence?” Judges thought that the issue would have to be resolved on a case-by-case basis or even in federal district court. Unfortunately, no one mentioned reestablishing parole in Arizona as a possible solution. It will be interesting to see what happens in two years.

If you or a loved one has been charged with an offense where you are facing 25 years with a chance of release, you need an experienced attorney on your side. Attorney Robert A. Dodell has over thirty years experience. Call him today for a free initial consultation.