By: Isabel Ranney
A death sentence is a clear punishment. Anyone who receives the sentence is well aware of the end goal. As they begin the laborious appellate process, they have a distinct idea of what is at stake. A natural life sentence is similar (and is, effectively a death sentence all the same, though it allows the person to achieve a natural death). The person sentenced sits in their cell and knows that days will turn into weeks will turn into years and the proverbial clock will not stop ticking until the day their heart expires. But what about the 25 to life sentence? For one crime, the Arizona legislature has failed to correct a large loophole, that keeps people imprisoned long after the 25-year term has expired.
That crime is a type of felony murder. Imagine you are leaving a party and you are under the influence. You know you should not drive but you do it anyway. As you are driving, you notice the police are following you and they turn their lights on, signaling that it is time for you to pull over. But you don’t. You keep going, swerving and slurring as you move through the lanes to lose the police and get to your destination faster. You can’t focus and you run straight into another car, killing the family within it. You are charged with first degree murder under A.R.S. § 13-1105 (for killing someone while committing a felony under A.R.S. § 28-622.01) and eventually plead to 25 years with the possibility of parole. You signed the plea knowing you had to serve at least 85% of the sentence but expecting to get out. But because someone died as a result, you will never get out of prison.
Persons sentenced to life terms with the “possibility of parole” must go before the Community Corrections Bureau of the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry, who decide the term of their community supervision (similar to parole) if they are eligible. See A.R.S. § 41-1604.07. For this specific crime, because it qualifies as first degree murder, it is ineligible for community supervision, which means there is no possibility of being granted release, even after serving 25 years. See A.R.S. § 41-1604.09.
In 1993, Arizona passed the “Truth in Sentencing Bill,” which dissolved the parole board in Arizona and eliminated parole for Class One felonies such as first-degree murder. This is true for all crimes committed after January 1, 1994 (if the crime was committed on or before January 1, 1994, that person goes before the Board of Executive Clemency). Now, for those sentenced to “25 to life with possibility of parole” for a felony murder, a permissible sentence under Arizona law, they are stuck in this gap – thus effectively sentenced to natural life. The only remedy available is to seek a pardon from the Arizona governor or a commutation for their sentence, both of which are unlikely to occur.
This legislative disconnect—between sentencing someone to life with possibility of parole after 25 years and parole being prohibited for the crime—creates a hellscape for those serving the sentence. They have no recourse yet they believed that there would be some opportunity for release. It calls into question the very purpose of a life sentence – a sentence that was not supposed to be the end all be all for such a crime (else, why would 25 to life even be an option?). Sure, the person driving the vehicle made a bad decision and there were horrible consequences. But is a life sentence appropriate for this crime? Is this individual so abhorrent that warehousing them in a cell for the rest of their natural life is more beneficial to society than allowing them to serve their time? Regardless, this legislative error sheds a light on the myriad of fractures within the criminal justice system.
Isabel (she/her) is a 3L at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. She graduated summa cum laude from Barrett, the Honors College at ASU with degrees in Political Science and Criminology and Criminal Justice and a certificate in Homeland Security. She is passionate about the intersection between family law and criminal law, particularly dependency adjudication.