For more than two decades, Arizona prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges have been cutting plea deals and meting out a sentence that was abolished in 1993: Life with a chance of parole after 25 or 35 years, reports the Arizona Republic. Some of those deals are about to come due. Danny Valdez was part of a 1995 drug deal that went bad. One person was killed, and no one was sure who fired the shot. Valdez took a plea deal to avoid death row, and the judge sentenced him to life in prison with a chance of parole after 25 years. The only problem was that parole was abolished in Arizona in 1993. It was replaced by a sentence that sounds similar, but in fact nearly eliminates the possibility of ever leaving prison alive. Valdez should have been sentenced to “life with chance of release after 25 years.”
Parole was something that could be granted by judgment of a parole board, based on the prisoner’s behavior and rehabilitation, without the approval of a politician. Release is a long shot, because it requires the prisoner to petition the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency, which can only recommend a pardon or commutation of sentence by the governor. Parole hasn’t existed in Arizona since 1994. Even if a judge’s sentence includes parole, it still won’t happen. Yet since then, hundreds of defendants have been sentenced to life with chance of parole. Valdez has served 22 years of his sentence. No one — not Valdez’s attorney, not the prosecutor, not the judge — ever told Valdez that he was not legally entitled to parole or a parole hearing. He found out when he received a letter last December from The Republic.