Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Sentence-Cutting Legislation Not Retroactive, Supreme Court Rules
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Since-amended legislation increasing the amount of conduct credit prisoners can earn toward their sentences does not apply to inmates who were convicted before the law was enacted, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday.
The court said former Penal Code Sec. 2010—which was on the books for about eight months in 2010—should only be applied prospectively, so that the additional credit accrued only from the date the law took effect.
“The statute contains no express declaration that increased conduct credits are to be awarded retroactively, and no clear and unavoidable implication to that effect arises from the relevant extrinsic sources, i.e., the legislative history,” Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar wrote for the court.
Supporters of Senate Bill 3X 18 said it was necessary to reduce overcrowding and save money by releasing qualified prisoners sooner than under prior law.
Yesterday’s decision overturns a Third District Court of Appeal ruling in favor of 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, became operative Jan. 25, 2010 and amended Sec. 4019 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 could be reduced to as little as 18 months under the 2010 version, if the inmate qualifies.
The only inmates who did not qualify under the amendment were sex offenders, those convicted of serious felonies, or those previously convicted of serious or violent felonies. A later version of the law extended it to those groups.
Werdegar cited the traditional presumption against retroactive application, and rejected the Court of Appeal’s reasoning that intent to apply the law retroactively should be inferred because it better serves the goal of saving money—the express purpose of the extraordinary legislative session at which the bill was adopted.
“Certainly…the legislation…was most immediately intended as a response to the state’s fiscal crisis,” she wrote. “But the method by which the Legislature chose to respond was not to grant early release or credits regardless of conduct, even though this would have offered the greatest economic benefit to the state, but rather to increase the existing incentives for good conduct by offering well behaved prisoners the prospect of even earlier release from custody.”
The defense argument that the Legislature also desired to increase the rewards for past good conduct finds no support in the text or legislative history, she added.
Werdegar went on to say that 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, does not apply to a law such as Sec. 4019 that deals not with the sentence to be imposed for past bad conduct, but with credit for future good conduct.
The justice also rejected the argument that applying the law prospectively only deprives those who were already serving sentences of the equal protection of the laws. The two classes are not similarly situated, she said.
The case is People v. Brown, 12 S.O.S. 2915.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company