SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – With the support of Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and voters, California is preparing to overhaul decades-old determinate-sentencing laws and make thousands of nonviolent inmates eligible for early parole.
In hopes of freeing up space inside its notoriously overcrowded prisons, this summer the state’s parole board will begin considering the early release of individuals convicted of crimes considered nonviolent by the state. Brown’s sweeping criminal justice reforms, approved overwhelmingly by voters in November 2016, amended the state’s constitution despite stiff opposition from law enforcement agencies and district attorneys.
In order to “stop the revolving door of crime,” the version of Proposition 57 passed by voters makes all individuals not convicted of 23 offenses considered “violent felonies” by the state eligible for parole consideration, including those convicted of an array of sex crimes. Nonviolent offenses up for early parole consideration are supposed to include possession of child pornography, contacting a minor with the intent to commit a sex offense and lewd or lascivious acts with a child aged 14 or 15, among others.
With the department planning to start determining parole eligibility on July 1, a civil rights group claims in state court that prisons officials cunningly tweaked the voter-approved measure and are planning to categorically exempt inmates incarcerated for nonviolent crimes that require them to register with the state as a sex offender.
“By excluding such individuals, the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation’s regulations nullify the vote of the majority of Californians, who approved Proposition 57 with full knowledge that its early parole consideration provision applies to all nonviolent offenses, including nonviolent registrable offenses,” the Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws says in its April 27 complaint.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Janice Bellucci of Sacramento said the department lacks the authority to alter the measure and that changes should be brought by the Legislature.
“The easiest [offense] for people to understand is possession of child pornography which is a non-contact, nonviolent offense,” Bellucci said in a phone interview. “How does the department think they get to change the definition of what is a violent felony?”
Bellucci estimated the department’s changes could impact around 12,000 inmates convicted of nonviolent sex offenses.
The measure passed last November with nearly 64 percent of the vote following a dedicated campaign backed by Brown, the California Democratic Party and the American Civil Liberties Union. Supporters poured nearly $14 million into the measure, with major contributions coming from Brown’s gubernatorial campaign war chest.
Backers convinced voters the “well-balanced” measure will put California on the path toward gaining full control over its prison system and save millions in taxpayer dollars through early releases. The program doles authority over early releases to the state’s parole board, creates rehabilitation opportunities for inmates and gives judges – not prosecutors – the authority to decide whether a minor will be tried as an adult or minor. Inmates serving life sentences without parole, on death row or convicted of violent felonies will be prohibited from the early release program.
Following the election, department secretary Scott Kernan stressed that “Proposition 57 does not change the penal code in regards to what crimes are considered nonviolent.” He later released a video that reassured inmates that anyone convicted of nonviolent crimes would be included in the parole process.
But the program about to be ushered in by the state contains changes voters did not approve, and not all nonviolent inmates will be given the chance to petition the parole board for early release.
After the election, the department proposed emergency regulations to the measure’s language and the state Office of Administrative Law approved the regulations in April without public comment.
Under the emergency regulations, a nonviolent offender eligible for early parole must be an inmate who has not been “convicted of a sexual offense that requires registration as a sex offender under Penal Code section 290.”
The Chief Probation Officers of California applauded the recent changes to Proposition 57, saying the reforms will enhance public safety.
“We are especially pleased with how well the department worked with us during this process and listened to our input as the leaders of rehabilitative programming in public safety,” the probation officers said in a statement. “These regulations reflect what we know is most important in programming and will have the greatest positive impact on the safety of our communities.”
The department declined to comment on the emergency regulations or the lawsuit, saying it doesn’t comment on pending litigation. Kernan is named along with the department in the lawsuit.
According to the plaintiffs, the department lacks the authority to amend the proposition and that voters enacted Proposition 57 knowing that some sex crimes would be eligible for parole consideration. They want a judge to repeal the department’s emergency order and require implementation of Proposition 57 as originally written.
“Supporters and opponents of the measure routinely listed and described the specific offenses that would be eligible for early parole consideration if Proposition 57 became law, including the nonviolent registrable offenses,” the complaint, filed in Sacramento County Superior Court, says.
While the Office of Administrative Law has already approved the changes to Proposition 57, the department says it will soon issue a public notice and conduct a public comment period of a minimum of 45 days. The emergency regulatory action is set to expire on Sept. 21.