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Mass Parole Re-Hearings in Tennessee Following AG Opinion

With some level of irony, on June 7, 2005 the Tennessee Attorney General's office sent a letter to the state's Board of Probation and Parole, recommending that the Board limit the amount of time between parole hearings and suggesting that over 375 prisoners be granted early re-hearings.

The letter was the result of the Board's request for guidance following a series of appellate state court decisions. In those rulings, including the seminal case of Baldwin v. Tenn. Board of Paroles, 125 S.W.3d 429 (Tenn. App. 2003), as well as Davis v. Maples, 2003 WL 22002660 (Tenn. App. 2003), York v. Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole, 2004 WL 305791 (Tenn. App. 2004) and Meeks v. Traughber, 2005 WL 280746 (Tenn. App. 2005), all petitions for writ of certiorari, the Board was directed to hold re-hearings in cases where prisoners received parole deferments ranging from 10 to 20 years.

The Tenn. Court of Appeals held in the above cases that it was arbitrary for the Board to defer prisoners' future parole hearings for such lengthy periods, finding that the parole board members have staggered six years terms and deferments exceeding that amount of time would prevent future board members from being able to consider those prisoners for parole during their tenure. In the Baldwin case, the court ruled that a twenty-year parole deferral would undermine the very provisions of the parole statutes that empower the board to grant parole.

Upon review, Tennessee Attorney General Paul Summers stated, Inasmuch as our Court of Appeals has held that it is presumptively arbitrary for the Board to defer hearings for more than six years, I strongly recommend that the Board formally adopt a policy prohibiting the deferral of future parole hearings for more than six years. Such a policy would demonstrate to the courts and the public the Board's good faith." He further advised the Board that failure to provide relief to prisoners who previously had received parole deferrals of greater than six years poses the potential for civil rights claims against the Board and its members.

The Board of Probation and Parole issued a press release stating it would take immediate steps to implement the Attorney General's recommendations. Approximately 375 prisoners have been scheduled for re-hearings, with a list being posted on the Board's website. Meanwhile, at least one Tennessee prisoner who litigated this issue, Danny R. Meeks, intends to challenge the Attorney General's recommendation, arguing that six years is still too long a time period between parole hearings. It remains to be seen how many prisoners will actually be paroled despite the new hearings.

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