Editorial & Opinion

ACLU sues RI Dept of Corrections over continued incarceration of inmates granted parole

“The DOC’s decision to upend decades of consistent interpretation of the State’s parole laws where there has been no change in the law and no mandate to do so has effectively increased the sentences that individuals must serve before being eligible for release,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger. “It is ill-considered and unnecessary. It not only contravenes the law; it is poor public policy.”
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Published on August 3, 2021
By ACLU of Rhode Island

A habeas corpus petition filed today by ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorneys and the Public Defender argues that an inmate is unlawfully being held in prison despite a decision by the Rhode Island Parole Board to release him on supervised parole. This is the second time in two years the ACLU has had to go to court to address this ongoing and disturbing problem created by a controversial and, according to the petition, unlawful policy change by the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (DOC).

The petition claims that the DOC changed inmate Francisco Martinez’s parole eligibility date almost three decades after he began serving his sentences for murder and assault, and that this change is forcing him to spend at least twenty extra months in prison despite a unanimous Parole Board vote in October 2020 authorizing his release from custody.

“Although the Rhode Island Superior Court has ruled in numerous cases that the DOC’s change of parole eligibility based on their own interpretation of statute is incorrect, it is unconscionable that the DOC continues to implement a policy that violates inmates’ constitutional rights,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Holley.

This continuing dispute, which affects dozens of other ACI inmates, is the result of the DOC’s unannounced decision a few years ago to retroactively change the way it calculates parole eligibility dates for certain individuals who were given consecutive sentences for their crimes. 

State law provides that when a prisoner is serving more than one sentence, “a parole permit may issue whenever he or she has served a term equal to one third of the aggregate time which he or she shall be liable to serve under his or her several sentences…” However, instead of aggregating consecutive sentences to determine parole eligibility as the law provides, and as the DOC used to do, the Department now requires inmates serving a life sentence to first meet the parole eligibility date for that sentence and then be “paroled” to start serving their next consecutive sentence. Only after the inmate meets the parole eligibility time frame for that second sentence are they deemed eligible for release under the DOC policy.

“The fact that an inmate remains held at the ACI after being found, by unanimous vote of the parole board, to be eligible for a parole permit is a serious waste of state resources and human capital,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Sonja Deyoe. “There is no benefit to society to continue to keep an individual imprisoned who has been granted parole.  It continues to punish an inmate who has already served his time and an action that continues to cost the State money.”

Although Martinez has long since served the requisite time to be eligible for parole for both sentences, he was shocked to learn that when the Parole Board unanimously voted to grant him parole after also approving a community re-entry program for him last year, his “parole” was to his consecutive five-year sentence for assault. Only after he waits the requisite parole eligibility period for that offense (in this case, 20 months) will he be considered for actual parole from the ACI. In other words, according to the DOC’s protocol, Martinez needs to be paroled twice before being eligible for release.

The habeas corpus petition calls the DOC’s actions in calculating separate parole eligibility dates for inmates like Martinez “arbitrary” and “irrational,” and notes that “release on parole can only mean release … from the physical custody” of the DOC, not “parole to a consecutive sentence.” The Parole Board claims it has no authority to challenge the DOC’s policy on how parole is calculated.

The habeas corpus petition, filed in Rhode Island Superior Court by ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorneys Lisa Holley, Sonja Deyoe and Lynette Labinger and Assistant Public Defender Camille McKenna, argues that DOC’s action violates a host of constitutional rights and contravenes state law, and asks for Martinez’s immediate release from custody, subject to Parole Board conditions. 

Last year, ACLU cooperating attorneys filed a similar suit on behalf of Robert McKinney, an inmate who, after being granted parole, learned that he would still have to spend an extra three years in prison on a consecutive sentence before being released. Just days after the ACLU petition was filed on McKinney’s behalf, the DOC agreed to release him. Despite that success and at least one other recent court decision ordering the release of another inmate under parallel circumstances, the DOC continues to require multiple grants of parole if a person is serving consecutive sentences that include a life sentence.

In filing today’s petition, the ACLU indicated it was examining ways to address the problem more systematically, since many other inmates remain affected by the policy.

“The DOC’s decision to upend decades of consistent interpretation of the State’s parole laws where there has been no change in the law and no mandate to do so has effectively increased the sentences that individuals must serve before being eligible for release,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger. “It is ill-considered and unnecessary. It not only contravenes the law; it is poor public policy.”

More info on the case, Martinez v. Coyne-Fague, including a copy of the petition, can be found here.

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