Nonviolent Sex Offenders Eligible for Early Parole, California Justices Rule

The California Supreme Court building in San Francisco. (Courthouse News photo / Maria Dinzeo)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The California Supreme Court ruled Monday that nonviolent sex offenders can be considered for early parole under an initiative passed in 2016 that extended parole eligibility to all inmates convicted of nonviolent felonies.

Writing for the unanimous court, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation cannot deny “even the mere possibility of parole to an entire category” of inmates under Proposition 57. The voter-backed initiative says that “[a]ny person convicted of a nonviolent felony offense and sentenced to state prison shall be eligible for parole consideration after completing the full term for his or her primary offense.”

The constitutional amendment “is not ambiguous concerning its scope regarding offenders who were previously convicted of a registerable sex offense or who are currently convicted of a registerable sex offense that the department has itself defined as nonviolent,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote.

“As it stands, the initiative’s language provides no indication that the voters intended to allow the department to create a wholesale exclusion from parole consideration based on an inmate’s sex offense convictions when the inmate was convicted of a nonviolent felony. We decline to create one ourselves,” she continued, adding the department “is left with ample room to protect public safety by crafting the specific processes under which parole suitability is determined on a case-by-case basis.”

The chief justice noted the ruling does not require immediate parole for any particular inmate, and the department and the Board of Parole Hearings must continue to evaluate inmates’ suitability for parole. But while it can deny parole hearings to violent felony sex offenders, “the department is not permitted to entirely exclude from parole consideration an entire class of inmates when those inmates have been convicted of nonviolent felony offenses,” she wrote.

Proposition 57 also contained a provision allowing the corrections department to adopt regulations furthering the goal of protecting and enhancing public safety, which Deputy Attorney General Charles Chung urged the high court to consider at a hearing in October.

But attorney Janice Bellucci said Ralph Diaz, then-secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, ignored the will of the voters and rewrote the language of Proposition 57 to categorically exclude any prisoner required to register as a sex offender from the possibility of early parole. Bellucci, also the executive director of the Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws, told the court that “by doing so, CDCR treats every sex offense as a violent offense.” 

Cantil-Sakauye said if the initiative drafters intended to exclude all sex offenders from nonviolent offender parole consideration, they would have explicitly said so. But she carefully noted the difference between qualifying for parole consideration and early release.

“A conclusion that the electorate made certain inmates eligible for parole consideration does not require the department to find each of those inmates suitable for parole. Indeed, many factors relevant to public safety may best be addressed through parole suitability determinations,” she wrote.

CDCR spokeswoman Dana Simas also emphasized that distinction.

“Public safety is one of CDCR’s primary missions. Today’s ruling does not mean that anyone will automatically be released to the community; it means that sex offenders currently serving time for nonviolent offenses will have the opportunity to go before the Board of Parole Hearings under the Proposition 57 nonviolent parole process to be considered for release,” Simas said in an email.

“The parole board will assess their case factors individually, including whether they continue to pose a public safety risk. Today’s ruling will have no impact on the existing exclusion of individuals convicted of violent felony sex offenses from this parole process.”

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