PROVIDENCE — Civil rights lawyers are yet again going to court to challenge what they say is a policy change in the Rhode Island prison system that’s keeping people locked up even after they’ve been granted parole.
Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union and the public defender’s office filed a petition in state Superior Court Monday over the case of Francisco Martinez. He was sentenced in 1993 to life in prison for first-degree murder, and got a consecutive five-year sentence for assault with a dangerous weapon.
He was granted parole in October 2020. But he soon learned he had to serve at least another 20 months at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston, because although he got parole on the murder sentence, he would also have to be paroled for the assault sentence, according to the ACLU.
“The fact that an inmate remains held at the ACI after being found, by unanimous vote of the parole board, to be eligible for a parole permit is a serious waste of state resources and human capital,” Sonja Deyoe, one of Martinez’s lawyers, said in a written statement. “There is no benefit to society to continue to keep an individual imprisoned who has been granted parole.”
J.R. Ventura, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said in an email: “The Department of Corrections is not holding Mr. Martinez illegally. The issues surrounding this complaint are complex, including the fact that the case the ACLU is relying on, is currently on appeal in the RI Supreme court. We look forward to the Court’s decision, which we are confident will clarify this unsettled area of law. Beyond that, we will not litigate this case in the press.”
It’s the second time the ACLU’s lawyers have gone to court over the policy change in the last two years. The last time, the ACLU said, the state DOC agreed to release inmate Robert McKinney a few days after a petition was filed.
Dozens of other inmates are in similar predicaments due to what the ACLU describes as an unannounced policy change by the Corrections Department.
The petition filed Monday says Martinez would have been eligible to be considered for parole on the murder charge after 15 years, and on the assault charge after 20 months. Those two deadlines should be combined together, or “aggregated,” the ACLU says.
That would have put his eligibility date in 2009. But he was denied when he first became eligible, and then multiple times after that. In October 2020, though, the Parole Board unanimously granted him parole. Under state law and longstanding prior practice, he’d served enough time on both the assault and murder sentences to be released from prison, his petition argues.
Instead, though, he’s essentially been paroled only to start serving the assault sentence, not to be released from prison. He wasn’t eligible for parole on the assault for another 20 months. That’s unlawful, irrational and unconstitutional, his lawyers argued in court.
Martinez had no disciplinary infractions for seven years and the Parole Board noted he had expressed remorse for his crime, according to the petition. Still, the board only granted him parole to begin serving his assault sentence, not to go free, even though he had re-entry plans.
The Department of Corrections, which runs the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.