California has settled legal action by a convicted killer who said his parole applications were unjustifiably denied for a decade, an agreement that could bring about earlier releases for inmates who have been sentenced to terms of up to life but remain eligible for parole.
Under the settlement, the state Board of Parole Hearings is required to establish the minimum time that should be served before an inmate is released, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Those sentences are to be based on the circumstances of the crime, so that killers convicted of torture, for instance, would draw the longest terms, according to the newspaper.
For inmates to be held beyond that minimum sentence, a parole board would have to demonstrate why they are a danger to the public.
State Court of Appeal Justice J. Anthony Kline in San Francisco approved the settlement Monday. It stems from a claim filed by Roy Butler, a 46-year-old Salinas Valley State Prison inmate who was sentenced to 15 years to life for a 1987 murder. He said his applications for parole were unjustifiably denied over 10 years.
"For decades, the Board of Parole Hearings has left these guys completely in the dark as to when they might ever have a chance of getting out," Jon Streeter, Butler's court-appointed attorney, told the Times.
Until now, parole commissioners waited until after prisoners were found suitable for release before calculating a minimum sentence. By then, many inmates had overstayed the minimum sentence for the circumstances of their crime, the newspaper said.
Advocates for crime victims and their families said after the settlement was announced that they were concerned about released inmates committing more crimes.
"We want to make sure in every decision the parole board makes and every decision the governor allows to go forward, that these individuals are safe and they will not create another victim," said Christine Ward, executive director for the Sacramento-based Crime Victims Action Alliance.
The settlement requires the state to begin crafting new policies "as soon as is practicable." But the new policy will not take full effect until the judge decides the most recent appeal of Butler, who has been refused parole five times.
The policy change could affect the time served of nearly 35,000 inmates — one out of four of those in California's prisons — who received maximum life sentences with the possibility of parole.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation did not immediately comment on the settlement. It is signed by parole board Executive Officer Jennifer Shaffer.