The California Supreme Court on Monday ruled that prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes would be considered for early parole, an endeavor that is part of a ballot measure that was approved four years ago by nearly two-thirds of voters.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said, “The initiative’s language provides no indication that the voters intended to allow the (Corrections) Department to create a wholesale exclusion from parole consideration based on an inmate’s sex offense convictions when the inmate was convicted of a non-violent felony.”
Former Governor Jerry Brown was the one who proposed the 2016 initiative and hoped to reduce the number of inmates and prison costs by increasing the number of parole. He has repeatedly argued that he and other supporters did not plan for it to include sex offenders.
However, lower courts ruled that the details of the initiative meant that sex offenders were not exempt from the consideration of parole, to which the high court agreed.
The justices ruled the ballot measure: “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 (Corrections) Department has itself defined as non-violent.”
California law states that violent offenses include rape, sodomy, and continuous sexual abuse of a child. However, the definition does not explicitly include offenses such as pimping, incest, indecent exposure, and possessing child pornography.
Sacramento attorney Janice Belucci said the justices’ ruling could lead to the early parole consideration of about 20,000 inmates. She argued against the case, adding that nearly half are serving time for sex crimes, and the rest were jailed for offenses such as burglary or drugs but had a history of sex crimes.
However, the court revealed a much lower number that was based on the state corrections department’s previous statistics. About 22,400 inmates were required to register for a sex offense based on a current or previous conviction, where more than 18,000 were imprisoned for a violent offense. That left only about 4,400 inmates.
While Belluci did not argue against the lower numbers, the problem would lie in how corrections officials define violent crime. She argued that there were times all sex offenders were considered under violent crimes but that at other times, the definition of the law was much narrower.
Belluci expressed her worry that officials would broadly define violent crime to include all sex crimes when regulations are re-written based on the high court’s ruling. She also noted how voters rejected another ballot measure in November, Proposition 20, which aimed to roll back the 2016 measure by adding more offenses to the list that were exempt from prole consideration.
Corrections department spokesperson, Dana Simas, supported the high court’s note that the ballot measure does not automatically paroled sex offenders, KTLA reported.
Parole boards would still have the authority to choose to allow or refuse a certain individual’s parole. They said the safety measure allowed corrections officials the power to protect public safety.
The justices said, “The Board of Parole Hearings may consider an inmate’s prior or current sex offense convictions when evaluating the inmate’s suitability for parole.” However, they added it might not deny “even the mere possibility of parole to an entire category” of inmates.
Simas said the ruling would have no effect on the existing exclusion of violent felony sex offense-convicted individuals from the parole process.