Getting Out of Prison Early

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

As part of the response to the novel coronavirus crisis, the General Assembly accepted amendments to the budget bills for the current year and the upcoming biennium, proposed by the Governor, authorizing the Department of Corrections (DOC) to release early from incarceration offenders with less than a year to serve on their sentences. This authorization will be effective as soon as the Governor signs the caboose bill.

DOC has released its early release plan. The plan is fairly detailed, laying out the criteria for eligibility for release and the internal procedures to be followed by DOC in implementing the plan. This post will summarize those elements of the plan that are most relevant to the general public. (The full plan can be found here.)

Contrary to the fears expressed earlier by some on this blog, DOC will not be throwing open the doors and immediately releasing every offender with less than a year to serve. The budget language does not require that every eligible offender be released, but that such releases be “compatible with the interests of society and public safety.” In that vein, the department will use the following criteria in considering early release:

  • Offense history—No offender convicted of capital murder (Class 1 felony) or a sexually violent offense will be eligible. For other offenses, DOC will give consideration for early release based on the seriousness of the current offense, in the descending as follows:
    • Non-violent offense
    • Felony weapons offenses
    • Involuntary manslaughter
    • Voluntary manslaughter
    • Robbery
    • Felony assault
    • Abduction
    • Murder
    • Sex offense
  • Medical condition—The offender’s medical condition will be considered. For example, “inmates at a higher risk for COVID-19 complications, who meet the eligibility criteria for release, will only be released if the necessary community support and resources are available.”
  • Viable home plan—The offender must have a documented approved home plan, developed by the probation and parole district office in the locality to which he will be released.
  • Good time earning level—DOC has a four level-schedule for which offenders can earn statutorily authorized sentence credits. Only inmates on Level I or Level II will be considered for early release.
  • Recidivism risk—DOC uses a validated tool to assess the risk that an offender will commit a new crime after being released. Only those offenders scoring a recidivism risk of low or medium will be considered for early release.

Any offender released under this plan will remain under the authority of the circuit court in which his conviction occurred and under the active supervision of the district probation and parole office.