(CN) - The 9th Circuit on Monday lifted an injunction against California's Victim's Bill of Rights Act, finding no evidence that the 2008 voter-approved initiative would prolong the sentences of prisoners serving life terms.
Eight life-term prisoners filed a class action objecting to Proposition 9's changes to the frequency and availability of parole hearings. They claimed that the law violated their constitutional rights because it retroactively increased their punishment by reducing their opportunities for parole.
The law changed the standards for parole hearings, lengthening the time a prisoner must wait for a new hearing after being found unsuitable for parole. It increased the minimum deferral period of one year to three years, upped the maximum deferral period from five years to 15 years and increased the default deferral period from one year to 15 years, according to the ruling.
Finding that the prisoners were likely to succeed with their challenge, a federal judge granted their motion for a preliminary injunction in February. A subsequent order stayed the preliminary injunction for one of the eight plaintiffs.
The federal appeals court in San Francisco reversed, ruling that "there were no facts in the record from which the district court could infer that Proposition 9 created a significant risk of prolonging plaintiffs' incarceration."
Judge Carlos Bea pointed out that the law allows the parole board to hold a discretionary "advance hearing" at the request of the prisoner, and that the request is subject to judicial review.
"Even assuming, without deciding, that the statutory changes decreasing the frequency of scheduled hearings would create a risk of prolonged incarceration, the availability of advance hearings is relevant to whether the changes in the frequency of parole hearings create a significant risk that prisoners will receive a greater punishment," Bea wrote for the three-judge panel.
The plaintiffs argued that the advance hearings were not enough to protect their rights, as they are entirely discretionary and "there is no mechanism or procedure in place for the board to initiate a review or to accept, consider or rule on a prisoner's request," according to the ruling.
But Bea found these arguments unpersuasive.
"An advance hearing by the Board 'would remove any possibility of harm' to prisoners because they would not be required to wait a minimum of three years for a hearing," he wrote.
"Because Proposition 9 does not create a significant risk of prolonging plaintiffs' incarceration on any of the theories asserted by plaintiffs, they are unlikely to succeed on the merits of their ex post facto claim," Bea concluded. "Therefore, we reverse the district court's order that granted plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction."