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January 28, 2005 - The Herald Democrat (TX)

Hundreds Of Inmates Are Released

By Jim Vertuno, Associated Press

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

AUSTIN - Texas has been forced t release more than 500 inmates frm prison since August because the state didn't give them proper advance notice of their parole hearings.

The releases have been forced by a 2004 court ruling that said Texas has violated inmates' due process rights by not giving them enough time to present the state parole board with evidence to bolster their case.

Most of those released have been inmates serving short sentences for nonviolent drug or property crimes and would have likely qualified for early release anyway under the state's "discretionary mandatory supervision" program, said Carl Reynolds, general counsel for the Texas Board of Criminal Justice.

"They are not going to be scary guys," Reynolds said.

The offenders are still under mandatory supervision and subject to being sent back to prison if they violate the terms of their release.

But the early paroles have restricted the state's ability to keep them in prison if they were deemed not ready to be on the streets.

"It is a challenge," said Rissie Owens, chairwoman of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles.

She said parole and prison officials are working "to make sure the citizens are safe, and we are doing whatever we can to comply with the court's opinion."

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals triggered the early releases with a ruling in May. In a case from Bell County, Thomas Christopher Retzlaff, who was sentenced in 1998 to eight years in prison on a weapons charge, was rejected three times for discretionary mandatory supervised release.

The system allows inmates who serve enough of their sentence and earn enough time off for good behavior to be released early. It also allows the parole board to keep them in prison if they are deemed too dangerous to be released early.

According to court records, the parole board either considered Retzlaff's case without notifying him or voted on his case the month before it was scheduled.

The court ordered the state to tell inmates the specific month and year their case is up for review and give them at least 30 days notice to submit materials in their defense.

The ruling has created problems for state corrections officials dealing with inmates serving short sentences of two or three years.

In some cases, the inmates will have already earned time served in county jails and "good time" for good behavior and attendance in rehabilitation programs.

By the time the state receives those inmates, the window to notify them of their parole hearing may have already closed.

Texas created mandatory supervision in 1977 to keep track of inmates who were released from prison early. By 1987, lawmakers tweaked the law to deny mandatory supervision from offenders who committed some serious or violent crimes.

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