California Supreme Court rules violent criminals ineligible for early release

By JOSH FRIEDMAN

The California Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday that corrections officials do not need to consider early release for violent felons whose primary offense is considered nonviolent under state law. [LA Times]

In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 57, an initiative sponsored by then-Gov. Jerry Brown that allows the state Board of Parole Hearings to consider releasing prisoners after they completed sentences for just their primary offenses, so long as the crimes are classified as nonviolent. Previously, state law  required “nonviolent” offenders to spend additional years, sometimes decades, behind bars before being considered for parole because of factors like having prior convictions, gang membership and gun possession.

Since the passage of the initiative, state corrections officials have drafted regulations excluding any inmate who is currently serving time for a violent felony from consideration for early parole. But, inmates sought that courts expand the application of Prop. 57 rules to allow early release for prisoners serving time for both violent and nonviolent felons.

On Monday, the state Supreme Court ruled corrections officials acted properly in drafting its regulations excluding violent felons.

In the court’s unanimous ruling, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote the constitutional text of Prop. 57 is ambiguous. However, the high court justices agreed with the corrections department’s argument that voters intended to exclude inmates serving a term for a violent felony, regardless of whether the inmate has also been convicted of a nonviolent felony.

The Supreme Court’s decision overturned an appeals court ruling that would have invalidated the corrections department’s regulation excluding prisoners serving time for any violent crime. The ruling upheld four other appellate decisions in favor of the regulation. 

California has a narrow legal definition of violent crimes. Only about two dozen of the most serious crimes, including murder voluntary manslaughter, attempted murder, kidnapping, assault, arson robbery and extortion, are considered violent under California law.

Monday’s ruling came in response to the case of Mohammad Mohammad, 44. In 2012, Mohammad pleaded no contest to nine counts of second-degree robbery, as well as six counts of receiving stolen property. 

Second-degree robbery is classified as a violent felony, while receiving stolen property is classified as a nonviolent crime. A Los Angeles County judge designated one of the property offenses as Mohammad’s principal crime, but ruled the sentences for the other offenses should run concurrently, and he gave Mohammad a total of 29 years in prison.

Following the passage of Prop. 57, Mohammad argued he should be considered for early release after serving just three years for the property crime that was his principal offense. An appeals court ruled in Mohammad’s favor, prior to the Supreme Court rejecting the decision. 

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