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New parole program gets reprieve

The state resumed releasing prison inmates under controversial parole rules Friday after an appeals judge blocked a lower-court judge's order to stop the releases.

More than 80 inmates scheduled for release Friday spent much of the day wondering whether they would get out. The Department of Corrections began releasing them late in the day after Chief Court of Appeals Judge Sara Combs issued her order.

But Combs said her order would be in effect only until the state Supreme Court decides whether to take the case or issues other orders about it.

Combs recommended that the state's highest court accept transfer of the case directly, rather than having it first heard by the Court of Appeals, because there is "great and immediate public interest" in the issue.

If the Supreme Court takes the matter, it also could allow inmate releases to continue while the case is pending. The high court already has accepted a separate lawsuit on the same questions.

At issue are changes put in place last year under which felons began getting additional credit toward completing their sentences.

That has allowed thousands to be released from prison or from parole supervision earlier than under previous rules.

The legislature prompted the changes to try to reduce prison costs.

Since late May 2008, the Department of Corrections has released more than 3,100 parolees from supervision and more than 2,400 inmates from prisons and jails under the rules.

But in an order released Thursday, Circuit Judge David A. Tapp said the state had applied the rules illegally because felons got credit to cut their sentences based on periods they were on parole before the new rules took effect.

Tapp, whose circuit is Pulaski, Lincoln and Rockcastle counties, issued an injunction to block any more releases from prison or parole statewide.

LaDonna Thompson, state corrections commissioner, appealed Tapp's order Friday, resulting in Combs' two-page order.

The state still can't release prisoners from Tapp's three-county area, however, according to a statement from J. Michael Brown, secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet.

Tapp barred use of the parole-credit rules in his circuit in a separate order.

Brown said he was pleased the Court of Appeals had acted quickly. Corrections officials think it is imperative that they be allowed to continue the parole-credits program, he said.

"We believe this is of the utmost importance in the arena of public safety," Brown said in the statement.

The legislature approved a measure this year, House Bill 372, under which felons will continue getting credit for time on parole as a way to reduce their sentence, with some exceptions, such as violent criminals or sex offenders.

However, that measure did not include language to make it retroactive, said the bill's sponsor, state Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville.

That means time people spent on parole before the effective date of HB 372 couldn't be credited to reduce someone's sentence under the law, Tilley said.