Board braces for flood of parole requests

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JACKSON – Mississippi’s Parole Board is preparing for more than 1,000 inmate requests for freedom after a state Court of Appeals decision Tuesday affecting parole eligibility for non-violent drug offenses.

The court, in a one-page letter, said it will not reconsider its April decision that inmate Nathan Sinko is eligible for parole. The Sinko decision opens the door for other inmates to seek parole because of changes made by the Legislature in 2014 to state parole standards involving non-violent drug convictions.

Rachael Ring, speaking for the Mississippi Attorney General, said her office does not intend to appeal the COA decision, which means the Sinko decision stands.

State Parole Board Chairman Steven Pickett

State Parole Board Chairman Steve Pickett

“The Parole Board will add the recently made eligible inmates to its regular docket,” said Steve Pickett, chairman of the Mississippi Parole Board. “We will review the approximate 1,200 inmates one at a time and will closely scrutinize their sentences, programs they have successfully completed during incarceration and their number of rule violations.”

Pickett noted that both the Legislature and the Court of Appeals now have spoken to the parole eligibility issue in question.

The inmates were convicted of certain non-violent drug offenses which the Mississippi Department of Corrections first deemed ineligible for parole but later determined were eligible for parole.

In its decision Tuesday, the Mississippi Court of Appeals refused to re-hear the Attorney General’s Office’s arguments against releasing Sinko.

Currently held at the state penitentiary at Parchman, Sinko, 35, pleaded guilty to Oktibbeha County drug charges in May 2012 and was sentenced for manufacturing a controlled substance other than marijuana, a crime which made him ineligible for parole.

Sink’s attorney, Jim Waide of Tupelo, said Sinko was eligible to be paroled in the fall of 2014 and still is in prison. “I don’t understand what the holdup is for his release,” he noted.

In its April decision, the court said that “for reasons that have not been explained,” the Department of Corrections classified Sinko and other similarly convicted offenders “as parole eligible,” then changed its mind and barred parole. The court noted that the Department of Corrections change came when it interpreted a separate drug case several years after Sinko entered state custody.

“For years MDOC deemed this very class of offenders, including Sinko himself, as eligible for parole,” the court said in its 9-1 opinion in April. The court also noted that the Legislature purposefully made eligible for parole anyone convicted of manufacturing meth or certain other controlled substances after July 1, 2014.

The court concluded that it was not “absurd” to extend parole eligibility to inmates like Sinko and others re-classified by the Department of Corrections.