Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Sentence-Cutting Legislation Is Retroactive, Court of Appeal Rules
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Recent legislation increasing the amount of conduct credit prisoners can earn toward their sentences applies to inmates who were convicted before the law was enacted, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
The court rejected Attorney General Jerry Brown’s contention that the law should only be applied prospectively, as inconsistent with the intent behind Senate Bill 3X 18—to reduce overcrowding and save money by releasing qualified prisoners sooner than under prior law.
The immediate beneficiary of the ruling is James Lee Brown III, sentenced to three years in prison for selling methamphetamine in 2006 in Lassen County. His sentence included 62 days’ credit for time actually served in jail prior to sentencing, plus 30 days’ credit under Penal Code Sec. 4019.
SB 3X 18, however, took effect Jan. 25 of this year and amended that section to double the number of pre- and post-conviction credits that a qualifying prisoner can earn. Thus, whereas a three-year sentence could be reduced to as little as two years under the old law, it can be reduced to as little as 18 months under the new one, if the inmate qualifies.
The only inmates who do not qualify under the new law are sex offenders, those convicted of serious felonies, or those previously convicted of serious or violent felonies.
In Brown’s case, the Court of Appeal affirmed his conviction in an unpublished opinion on Jan. 13. But after SB 3X 18 took effect, the court granted his petition for rehearing in order to resolve the issue of whether the new law applies retroactively.
Justice Harry Hull, writing for the court yesterday, cited In re Estrada (1965) 63 Cal.2d 740, which holds that a law reducing punishment for a crime applies retroactively if the Legislature does not state a contrary intent.
The justice rejected the attorney general’s argument that because one of the stated purposes of the new law is to increase the incentives for good conduct, and that purpose would not be served by retroactive application, the Legislature could not have intended that the law apply retroactively.
“If the intent of the Legislature was to reduce prison populations, but to do so responsibly by providing early release only for less serious offenders who have demonstrated good behavior, that purpose can also be served by retroactive application of revised section 4019. Rather than simply granting additional credits to all prisoners, as the People suggest might have been done if the Legislature’s only concern was budgetary, Senate Bill 18 increased credits only for those prisoners who earned them. In other words, only those prisoners who have demonstrated good behavior, both in the past and going forward, would be entitled to the enhanced credits.”
Hull also cited language in various parts of the bill suggesting that the Legislature intended retroactive application, including a provision immunizing officials against liability for “delays in determining the amount of additional time credits to be granted against inmate sentences resulted from changes in law pursuant to this act.”
The “true intent” of the bill, Hull went on to say, was to address the state’s fiscal emergency—the express purpose of the extraordinary legislative session at which the bill was adopted. Retroactive sentence reduction, the justice declared, is consistent with that end.
In an unpublished portion of his opinion, Hull rejected the defense argument that Lassen Superior Court Judge Stephen Bradbury coerced a jury verdict by having jurors begin deliberation at 6:10 p.m., without a dinner break, after testimony concluded at 4:50 p.m.
By proceeding in that manner, the defense argued, the judge was signaling that he thought the defendant was guilty and that he expected deliberations—which lasted 50 minutes—to be brief.
Hull noted that neither the defense nor any of the jurors objected to the schedule when given the opportunity to do so. The judge, he added, “did not put any time pressure on the jury, did not suggest the case was simple and would require only brief deliberation, and did not imply that the case only warranted desultory deliberation.”
The case is People v. Brown, C056510.
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