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Judge delays ruling on inmate-release ban

A Franklin Circuit judge has delayed a ruling on whether to issue a temporary ban on the release of inmates statewide under new parole rules.

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd, after hearing 45 minutes of arguments from lawyers with the Department of Corrections and Attorney General Jack Conway's office on Thursday, gave them until Monday to file additional paperwork and said he might issue a ruling next week.

Attorney General Jack Conway filed a lawsuit Wednesday asking a judge to temporarily stop the release of prisoners under new rules enacted by the legislature earlier this year. The new rules were supposed to ease overcrowding of the state's prisons and save the state $12.5 million over the next two years.

Conway's lawsuit is the second one asking a judge to stop the early-release program. There is currently an injunction in Rockcastle, Pulaski and Lincoln counties after a suit by Commonwealth's Attorney Eddy Montgomery. There is a motion pending to move the lawsuit to Franklin Circuit Court. It is likely that the two cases will be consolidated.

At issue are changes that give credit to convicted felons for time they were on parole if they have to return to prison. That credit counts toward their release as time served, meaning they could be freed earlier than they otherwise would have been.

During a court hearing Thursday, Tad Thomas, an assistant deputy attorney general, argued that the Department of Corrections was applying the new rules retroactively even though the language in the bill does not allow for retroactive interpretation.

Moreover, the Department of Corrections is violating the Truth in Sentencing Act, Thomas said. Juries and judges thought that a convicted felon was going to serve for a specific length of time, and the Department of Corrections is now changing those rules. Only governors can commute or change sentences, Thomas said.

There are cases when the Department of Corrections has applied the new rules to someone who was sentenced 15 years ago, Thomas said.

Lawyers for the Department of Corrections argued that the legislature intended for the Department of Corrections to interpret the statute retroactively. And prisoners are not being released early. The people who have been released under the program have violated their parole. They would have served out a sentence of the same amount of time that they were credited for, corrections lawyers argued. So far, more than 2,189 have been discharged from supervised release under the new rules, and 1,464 inmates have been released from prisons under the program that took effect in May.

For Shepherd to issue a temporary ban until the issue surrounding the new paroles rules can be argued in full, the Attorney General had to show that there might be irreparable harm if the practice continues. Thomas argued that there have been people who have been released under the parole credit program who have gone on to commit other crimes. And crime victims now are unsure when a perpetrator might be released, Thomas said.

But Brenn Combs, a lawyer for the Department of Corrections, argued that the department has a limited budget, and that the budget was set based on the $12.5 million savings the program was supposed to generate.

"It would create financial harm," Combs said.