Mich. inmates win lawsuit over unusual parole ban - FOX 29 News Philadelphia | WTXF-TV

Mich. inmates win lawsuit over unusual parole ban

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By ED WHITE
Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- A judge has given new hope to about 130 Michigan prison inmates after striking down an unusual state policy that had denied them any possibility of parole if they committed another crime behind bars.

The practice was so little-known that judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers said even they were unaware of the consequences.

"Outrageous," said Jonathan Sacks, head of the State Appellate Defender Office.

The inmates were sent to prison on life sentences with a chance at parole for crimes that included second-degree murder, assault or other offenses. They typically would be eligible for parole consideration after 10 or 15 years.

But a subsequent crime in prison -- contraband, attempted escape, a homemade weapon -- turned out to have drastic consequences. The Corrections Department and parole board put the inmates in a new category that shut the door on any possibility of parole. The sentence truly turned into life behind bars. Only a merciful governor could release them.

Ingham County Judge Joyce Draganchuk ruled in favor of the prisoners on Sept. 11, saying the state's interpretation of the law was "mistaken." University of Michigan law professor Paul Reingold, who filed the lawsuit with help from students, is proposing that inmates now get parole hearings when they're eligible.

The state is due to file a response next week. The next court hearing is Oct. 30 in Lansing.

"We're not claiming that any of the plaintiffs has a right to parole. They clearly don't," Reingold told the judge earlier this year.  "What they do have, however, is the right to parole consideration."

The group of approximately 130 includes at least two people who were returned to prison after committing crimes while on parole. Amy Nowak, 43, was arrested for shoplifting in St. Clair County in 2010 and is being treated as a mandatory lifer.

Reingold declined to comment this week. The state's policy apparently was discovered during litigation in another case. Separately, Michael Watkins, who has been in prison for more than 20 years, didn't learn about his no-parole status until his family filed a Freedom of Information request.

The attorney general's office said no decision has been made about an appeal of Draganchuk's decision. In an earlier court filing, state lawyers said the interpretation of Michigan law by prison officials "has been consistently applied" and never questioned by the Legislature.

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