On September 7, 2018 in In re Edwards, 26 Cal. App. 5th 1181 (2018), the California Second District Court of Appeal granted the petition for writ of habeas corpus filed by a state prison inmate serving an indeterminate life sentence pursuant to the “Three Strikes” law. In so doing, the Court held that the passage of Proposition 57 meant that all nonviolent state prisoners, including “Third Strike” offenders, are eligible for parole consideration upon completion of the full term for their primary offense.
Originally enacted in 1994, California’s “Three Strikes” law (Pen. Code, sections 667, subds. (b)–(i), 1170.12) was designed to increase the prison terms of repeat felons by separately increasing the punishment for each new felony conviction. (People v. Williams (2004) 34 Cal.4th 397, 404.) “When a defendant is convicted of a felony, and it is pleaded and proved that he or she has committed one or more prior felonies defined as ‘violent’ or ‘serious,’ sentencing proceeds under the Three Strikes law […] If the defendant has two or more prior qualifying felonies, the prescribed term for the current (or ‘triggering’) felony conviction will be an indeterminate term of life imprisonment….”
Proposition 57 was approved by California voters in 2016. It added a provision to California’s Constitution that states: “Any 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.” (Cal. Const., art. I, section 32, subd. (a)(1) (“Section 32(a)(1)”.) The provision defines “the full term for the primary offense” as “the longest term of imprisonment imposed by the court for any offense, excluding the imposition of an enhancement, consecutive sentence, or alternative sentence.” (Section 32(a)(1)(A).)
Proposition 57 also directed the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) to adopt regulations “in furtherance of [Section 32(a)]” and “certify that these regulations protect and enhance public safety.” (Cal. Const., art. I, section 32, subd. (b) (“Section 32(b)”.)
Petitioner Vicenson D. Edwards is currently serving a 53-year-to-life sentence in state prison, imposed pursuant to the “Three Strikes” law (Pen. Code, sections 667, subds. (b)–(i), 1170.12). He sustained the convictions that triggered his sentence—felon in possession of a firearm (Pen. Code, former section 12021) and evading a police officer while driving recklessly (Veh. Code, section 2800.2)—in 1998. The Second District affirmed these convictions and the sentence imposed (with modifications) on direct appeal.
Edwards filed a habeas corpus petition challenging the regulations that CDCR promulgated which made him ineligible to seek Proposition 57 relief. The Court of Appeal issued an order directing CDCR to show cause why the relief sought in the petition should not be granted. The Attorney General, on CDCR’s behalf, filed a return defending the regulations and maintaining that Edwards was ineligible for Proposition 57 relief. After CDCR promulgated final regulations, the Court solicited briefs from the parties concerning the final regulations prior to its decision.
The Court observed that, according to the text of Proposition 57, its goals were to: protect and enhance public safety; save money by reducing wasteful spending on prisons; prevent federal courts from indiscriminately releasing prisoners; and to stop the revolving door of crime by emphasizing rehabilitation, especially for juveniles. The Court of Appeal focused on the text of Section 32(a)(1) that advanced these purposes. Under Section 32(a)(1), “Any 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.” Under Section 32(a)(1)(A), “the full term for the primary offense means the longest term of imprisonment imposed by the court for any offense, excluding the imposition of an enhancement, consecutive sentence, or alternative sentence.”
The Court concluded from the text that it was “obvious the electorate intended to establish a new rule: All nonviolent state prisoners are eligible for parole consideration, and they are eligible when they complete the full term for their primary offense.” CDCR conceded Edwards and similarly situated prisoners were nonviolent, but argued the reference to “the full term for the primary offense” referred to a determinate sentence, rendering Edwards ineligible for relief because he was serving an indeterminate sentence and had not completed a “full term.”
CDCR had adopted final regulations that stated that nonviolent inmates were generally eligible for early parole consideration, but notwithstanding that general eligibility, “an inmate is not eligible for parole consideration by the Board of Parole Hearings … if … [¶] … [t]he inmate is currently incarcerated for a term of life with the possibility of parole for an offense that is not a violent felony …” (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15, section 3491, subd. (b)(1)). In a final statement of reasons accompanying the adopted regulations, CDCR asserted “life term inmates remain ineligible for parole consideration because the plain text of Proposition 57 makes clear that parole eligibility only applies to determinately sentenced inmates, and furthermore, public safety requires their exclusion.”
The Court noted that the parties agreed that Edwards qualified as a nonviolent offender and, under section 32(a)(1), was “eligible for parole consideration after completing the full term for his … primary offense.” Edwards and CDCR also agreed (and precedent had well established) that “an indeterminate life term under the Three Strikes law … is an alternative sentence … .” (People v. Turner (2005) 134 Cal.App.4th 1591, 1597.). The parties further agreed that the “full term” of Edwards’s primary offense was “the longest term of imprisonment imposed by the court for any offense, excluding the imposition of an enhancement, consecutive sentence, or alternative sentence.” (Section 32(a)(1)(A), italics added.)
The Court concluded that the plain language analysis was straightforward, finding “no question that the voters who approved Proposition 57 intended Edwards and others serving Three Strikes indeterminate sentences to be eligible for early parole consideration; the express exclusion of alternative sentences when determining the full term is dispositive.” CDCR argued that Section 32(a)(1)’s phrasing of the definition for “full term for the primary offense” indicated that it applied to determinate, not indeterminate sentences. The Court found CDCR’s interpretation “at war with the straightforward textual” interpretation that expressly excluded alternative sentences in determining the full term.
Citing excerpts from the Voter Information Guide at the time in support of Proposition 57, the Court concluded that there was “strong evidence the voters who approved Proposition 57 sought to provide relief to nonviolent offenders.” The Court also found that CDCR’s concession that Edwards was a nonviolent offender (for Prop. 57 purposes) “leaves us convinced that excluding him for relief is inconsistent with the voters’ intentions.” The Court added that excluding nonviolent indeterminately sentenced inmates from early parole consideration “frustrates rather than facilitates the [Proposition 57] voters’ declared intention to avoid indiscriminate inmate releases that might otherwise be required to respond to constitutional overcrowding concerns.”
Having established Edwards’ eligibility, the Court then addressed the timing of when Edwards was entitled to early parole consideration. The Court found that the language in Section 32(a)(1) that “excludes any alternative sentence from consideration is most naturally understood as a command to calculate the parole eligibility date as if the Three Strikes law alternative sentencing scheme had not existed at the time of Edwards’s sentencing.” Under Penal Code section 18, the Court determined the maximum term Edwards would face for his currently convicted crimes was three years in state prison. Edwards had already completed that term, and, the Court determined, was therefore now eligible for early parole consideration.
The Court found CDCR’s adopted regulations could not bar Edwards and other similarly situated inmates serving Three Strikes sentences for nonviolent offenses by “impermissibly circumscrib[ing]” Proposition 57 parole eligibility. The Court voided these CDCR’s offending provisions of its adopted regulations for being inconsistent with California Constitution, article I, section 32.
The Second District Court of Appeal granted Edwards’ petition for habeas corpus and directed CDCR to void and repeal the portion of Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15, section 3491, subd. (b)(1) at issue in the case. The Court also directed CDCR to make any further conforming changes necessary to “render the regulations adopted pursuant to California Constitution, article I, section 32(b) consistent with section 32(a) and this opinion.” Edwards was to be evaluated for early parole consideration within 60 days of the ruling’s issuance.
HOW THIS AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY
The Court concluded that, with Proposition 57’s passing, “any person convicted of a nonviolent felony offense” is eligible for parole consideration, and eligible when they complete the full term for their primary offense. This group includes those who had enhancements under the Three Strikes law. According to some media reports, up to 4,000 people will be eligible for parole under this standard and California Governor Jerry Brown will not appeal the Court’s ruling. California authorities said they are drafting new emergency regulations in compliance with the decision that will go into effect on January 5, 2019. The Edwards decision is likely to result in the release of a substantial number of CDCR inmates which the State previously did not consider eligible for Proposition 57 release. The effects on public safety remain to be seen.
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