Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the presiding judge in this case. The trial has been assigned to Davidson County Chancellor Anne C. Martin.
A recent review of Tennessee’s parole regulations changes the fundamental approach to early release for defendants who hope to be released from prison after serving their sentence.
But a new trial argues the parole board is falling short of its updated mandate.
The lawsuit, filed in Davidson County Chancellery Court Thursday, follows the story of Jeffrey Wayne Hughes.
Hughes, 37, was given a combined 27-year prison sentence for theft and money laundering in Lawrence County in 2009 and 2010, according to reports from the Tennessee Department of Correction.
Historically, the board of directors – and state law – have considered “parole is a privilege, not a right” as the watchword. This has changed with the new law.
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Under the Re-Entry Success Act of 2021, which came into force on Thursday, eligible defendants have a presumption of parole unless a “good cause” is demonstrated to justify their incarceration.
Hughes’ attorney Daniel Horwitz argues the law requires counsel to review cases as soon as a defendant becomes eligible, or at a hearing significantly scheduled shortly after that date.
But Hughes, who could become eligible as early as September based on his sentence and credits earned while incarcerated, is not expected to have a parole hearing until July 2022.
The decision to delay consideration of Hughes’ case is “arbitrary, capricious and illegal,” according to the lawsuit.
Hughes had already been scheduled for a new hearing in the summer of 2022, two years after he last appeared before council, according to the lawsuit. At his parole hearing in July 2020, he was recommended to be released on conditions, although the commission denied his request at the time.
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The board intends to hear Hughes’ petition at that 2022 hearing, according to the lawsuit, even though the date was set before the new bill’s provisions came into force.
“Unless the Board meets its onus of proving that it has good reason to deny Mr. Hughes’ parole, each day Mr. Hughes is incarcerated beyond his next eligibility date on release will be a day when he will be illegally imprisoned, ”Horwitz said in the trial.
Horwitz, a Nashville lawyer, has been blunt about what he sees as a mismatch between Lee’s campaign promises on criminal justice reform and the practical deployment of related legislation.
Hughes’ Chancellery Court petition asks a judge to order the commission to hold a parole hearing before the date he becomes eligible and to release him unless the commission holds that hearing and provides a reason why it shouldn’t be.
Davidson County Chancellor Anne C. Martin will hear the case.
The Tennessee General Assembly this session also reconfigured the way constitutional challenges to state law are heard in Chancellery Court, with the goal of moving some decision-making out of Nashville. This trial, while dealing with the new state law, seems unlikely to trigger the new 3-judge panel system.
The second of Lee’s two criminal justice reform bills, the new parole board act also removes the fees to set up a driver’s license reinstatement payment plan and raises rates of license reinstatement. reimbursement for local prisons choosing to expand classes and resources available to inmates.
It also allows the Parole Board to hear testimony from inmates seeking release both in person and by video.
The Parole Board is typically represented by the attorney general’s office in prosecutions, although a representative on Thursday afternoon could not confirm that they had been formally served in the case.
A representative from the governor’s office declined to comment on the ongoing trial.