Disparities drive challenges to law
Arkansas prisoners sent away for life as teens were offered a new track toward parole eligibility earlier this year, but releases have been put on hold this summer as some of these inmates go to court to seek more favorable sentences.
The Fair Sentencing of Minors Act — enacted by the Arkansas Legislature this spring in response to U.S. Supreme Court decisions — offered new terms to at least 42 convicted murderers who had been sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed before their 18th birthdays.
The act would allow them to be resentenced by a judge to life with the possibility of parole. The inmates would then have the opportunity to go before the Arkansas Board of Parole once they served 25 years for first-degree murder, or 30 years for capital murder. Whether they are released would be up to the board’s seven members.
In state prisons, eight inmates have served enough time since their convictions as youths to be eligible for parole right away, according to Gregg Parrish, the state public defender coordinator.
Before the new law took effect, more than a dozen inmates had already received new sentences in state courts after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision to outlaw no-parole life sentences for minors. In those sentence revisions, inmates received either a term of up to 40 years or life with the possibility of parole, leading to several being released. No one has been released under the new law.
The disparate treatments have raised questions of fairness, and answers are being sought from the Arkansas Supreme Court.
The Parole Board announced June 27 that it was halting all actions under the new law, Act 539 of 2017, after a pair of judges in Pulaski County challenged the retroactive application of sweeping sentence revisions.
In the more recent of the two cases, Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen declared that Act 539 illegally stripped the lifers of a chance to have their new sentences determined by a judge or jury.
Griffen and Circuit Judge Herb Wright have ordered new sentencing hearings in court for six inmates, rather than giving the sentence specified in the new law.
Pulaski County Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney John Johnson has filed his intention to appeal both cases to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which is in summer recess.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge is evaluating her office’s options, a spokesman said.
Kelly Knuckles, an executive assistant to Parole Board Chairman John Felts, said the agency had not yet published its July hearing schedule before ceasing its work implementing Act 539.
“The Parole Board will need to devise and implement policy changes pursuant to the new law,” Knuckles said in an email. “Discussions surrounding any requisite changes have begun and are now placed on hold until further ruling by the Courts.”
In Pulaski County, Johnson provided the names of 17 Department of Correction inmates sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as minors in the state’s largest county. (The list contained one name not counted by the state public defender coordinator’s office).
Two of the names on Johnson’s list had already received reduced sentences prior to Act 539, and one of the two was paroled.
Many of the convicts were sent to prison in the 1990s, records show, when murder rates in Little Rock soared. Many face at least another decade in prison before they are eligible for parole under Act 539. Only one inmate from Pulaski County would be eligible for parole this year under Act 539.
The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed mandatory life-without-parole sentences for minors in 2012, in a case that overturned the sentence of Arkansas inmate Kuntrell Jackson. The high court said in another ruling last year that its decision applied retroactively to more than 2,000 cases nationwide.
Jackson became the first prisoner in Arkansas to be resentenced under the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings. In 2014, he received a 20-year prison sentence from a Mississippi County judge for his role in a deadly 1999 robbery, in which someone else was accused of shooting a clerk. Jackson, now 31, was released from prison in February, according to the Correction Department.
The Legislature declined to revise the life-without-parole sentencing law for minors in 2015. That left it up to the courts, prosecutors and defense attorneys to go through cases individually and apply new sentences.
With life-without-parole sentences and the death penalty off the table for minors because of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the inmates resentenced before the passage of Act 539 were given the range of penalties for a Class Y felony, from 10 to 40 years or life.
Parrish, the public defender coordinator, said in most cases the new sentences prior to Act 539 amounted to 40 years, with eligibility for parole.
Lawmakers who pushed for passage of Act 539 said it would bring the state in compliance with the Supreme Court decision and also spoke of the lack of development in the minds of young offenders.
The law requires mental-health evaluations for youthful offenders before they enter prison, with follow-ups when they are made eligible for parole.
But Parrish — who keeps a laminated chart of all the cases affected by the Supreme Court’s decision — noted that those still waiting for new sentences will not be able to go back in time to receive evaluations.
After Act 539 became law, defense attorneys continued to push for new sentencing hearings. They argue the law — and its strict 25- or 30-year parole eligibility standards — gives an unfair deal to inmates who missed the opportunity for a sentence in a term of years.
In the 2nd Judicial Circuit in northeast Arkansas, for instance, four inmates — including Jackson — received new sentences prior to Act 539, according to Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington’s office. None of the four remained listed in the Department of Correction inmate roster last week, indicating they had been released.
Another four inmates in the six-county circuit remain eligible for new sentences, but, if sentenced in accordance with Act 539, they would still have to spend years in prison before they are eligible for parole.
“They’re not all being treated alike,” Parrish said. “We consider these to be a group.”
Act 539 prohibits credit for “good time” in prison from being calculated into parole eligibility. The law requires the Parole Board to consider how the minors behave differently from adults.
Prosecuting attorneys, as well as the victim’s family, are offered the opportunity to oppose parole at a hearing before the board.
“What some of these individuals did, they ought to never get out,” said Washington County Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett. “No court said they had to be released, but the court did say they had to have the opportunity for release.”
Two Washington County men who have served a total of more than 68 years in prison for murders they committed as teens were made eligible for parole this summer under the law.
Christopher Segerstrom led a 4-year-old girl into the woods in 1986, where he sexually assaulted and killed her. Segerstrom was 15 at the time.
In the other case, Circuit Judge Mark Lindsay resentenced James Vancleave to life with a chance of parole under the new law. Vancleave was convicted of stabbing a convenience store clerk to death in 1978, when Vancleave was 16.
Judges are proceeding along different routes handling Act 539 cases, said Lori Kumpuris, the deputy prosecutor coordinator for the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association.
They are either imposing the sentences in the law as in the Washington County cases, ordering resentencing hearings as is the case for two Pulaski County judges, or waiting on direction from the Arkansas Supreme Court when it rules on the Pulaski County cases.
In addition to vacating no-parole sentences given to minors, Act 539 also made inmates serving decades or life in prison for nonhomicide offenses eligible for parole after 20 years.
The Department of Correction has identified 92 inmates whose cases would be affected by that part of the law, in some form, according to prison spokesman Solomon Graves.