Appeals Court Rules California Must Restructure Parole Process

(CN) – California’s struggle to implement sweeping criminal justice reforms continued Tuesday as a state appeals court ruled that corrections officials’ handling of early parole requests by inmates doing time for nonviolent crimes violates a 2016 voter-approved measure.

The decision by the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles forces the state to again scrap and rewrite parts of the framework it has been using to determine whether to grant certain inmates expedited parole hearings. The ruling means additional inmates could soon be given early parole consideration but does not guarantee that more will be set free.

“The only certain consequence of our decision is that the board of parole hearings will be busier; they must evaluate the parole worthiness of a category of inmates that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s regulations incorrectly bar from getting before the parole board at all,” Tuesday’s ruling states.

As part of a push led by former Governor Jerry Brown to walk-back decades old determinate sentencing laws that helped packed California prisons to the brim, he introduced a plan to make more room in state prisons.

Brown, a Democrat, borrowed millions from his own campaign coffers to fund the effort that backers said would save taxpayer dollars in the long run. The fourth-term governor said it was time for the state to stop “wasting costly space” on nonviolent offenders.

Officially known as Proposition 57, the reforms proposed parole consideration for people with nonviolent convictions, gave corrections officials the power to grant inmates credits for good behavior and requires judges, instead of prosecutors, to decide whether a minor should be tried as an adult.

District attorneys and county sheriffs largely fought the initiative and warned it would endanger public safety by sending a flood of inmates back on the streets.

“It’s disgraceful to victims because they will no longer have any assurance as to how much time their offender will be incarcerated,” Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said at the time.

Ultimately more than 60% of voters in 2016 sided with Brown and passed the landmark initiative.

Since then, the corrections department’s regulations for early parole have been routinely overturned by state courts. Over the last two years appeals courts have rejected language that barred nonviolent “three strikes” inmates from early parole consideration, as well as a clause that denied inmates that have been disciplined for behavior while behind bars.

The latest ruling pertains to a man serving time for both nonviolent and violent felonies who was denied a parole hearing by the department. 

Mohammad Mohammad pleaded no contest in 2012 to a total of 15 felonies – including nine counts of second degree robbery – but a Los Angeles County judge designated a count considered nonviolent under Proposition 57 as his principal sentencing term, with the remaining convictions to run subordinately.

After serving the three-year primary offense of receiving stolen property, Mohammed in 2017 requested a parole hearing under Proposition 57. But the corrections department rejected the claim, saying it considered him a “violent offender” and cited his non-controlling robbery counts.

Though the panel frequently notes that Mohammad may not deserve parole, it says the proposition’s language is clear that he should at least be allowed a hearing. It says the rules focus on the “offender” and not the “offense,” and that they “war” with the proposition’s text. 

“There is just no escaping the conclusion that the text Proposition 57 added to the constitution obviously contemplates inmates would be sent to prison for more than one criminal offense and would qualify for early parole consideration if one of those offenses was a nonviolent offense,” the 14-page ruling states. “The regulations the corrections department promulgated are at war with that textual conclusion and therefore cannot stand.”

 Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office, which argued the case, declined to comment on the ruling, and the corrections department said it was still reviewing the ruling and considering its next steps. The order voids a specific section of the correction department’s rules and gives it 60 days to evaluate Mohammad for early parole.

Becerra’s deputies argued that the initiative was not meant to extend to those convicted of violent and nonviolent crimes, and pointed to the measure’s ballot summary and arguments.

In writing the unanimous decision, Justice Lamar Baker said precedent denies the court the ability to consider “voter intent” and instead it had to focus on the language of the proposition. He said if California voters did not do their homework on Brown’s reforms and wrongly passed the proposition, they have the ability to remedy their mistake.

“If voters want a different result, the ballot box is open every two years to change what the constitution now says,” the ruling continues.

Baker finishes by highlighting the unusual circumstances of Mohammad’s case, noting that the court decided to designate a nonviolent count as the principal term and that prosecutors could choose to switch up their charging strategies to prevent a similar scenario.

Regardless of how the corrections department chooses to rewrite the next batch of rules, the parole board will continue to hold the cards on Proposition 57.

“The board’s decision on whether an inmate should be granted parole will take into account the inmate’s full criminal history – nonviolent and violent offenses alike – when determining whether the inmate poses a risk to public safety,” Baker said.

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