Federal court ruling could mean the parole of more murderers in California

Officer Vickjord walks the floor of the 4B SHU at Corcoran State Prison.
Officer Vickjord walks the floor of the 4B SHU at Corcoran State Prison.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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A judge in Sacramento struck down portions of two tough-on-crime ballot initiatives that for years have stymied the ability of prisoners to be released on parole.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton ruled on Friday that portions of Proposition 9 and Proposition 89 violated the U.S. Constitution by retroactively changing punishment for certain crimes. Both rulings concern "lifers" – offenders sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. They represent about 25 percent of the state prison population. Read the full ruling below.

No word on whether state officials will appeal the ruling.

Before Proposition 9, those serving life sentences first had had to serve their minimum sentence. Then they could present their case to the parole board every one or two years.

Once Prop. 9 ("Victims' Bill of Rights Act of 2008: Marsy's Law") passed in 2008, it gave lifers fewer opportunities to appear before the parole board. Prisoners could wait up to 15 years between hearings.

"It was a dramatic change in how long the parole board could make parolees wait for their next hearing," said Barry Krisberg. "The evidence was pretty clear that this was causing people to stay in prison longer."

An earlier challenge to the law – claiming it was cruel and unusual punishment – failed in the courts. But Karlton ruled Friday that the law could not be applied retroactively because it effectively changed a person's prison sentence after the fact. And that is unconstitutional.

Now, those convicted of life with the possibility of parole before the initiative passed can return to a more frequent parole hearing schedule. Krisberg said he expects to see more prisoners approved for parole.

Whether they actually get out after clearing the parole board is another issue Judge Karlton tackled.

Historically, California governors have used a power given to them in Proposition 89, passed in 1988, to reverse the parole board's decision to release convicted murderers.  As a result, until recently, very few lifers were ever released, at least without undertaking lengthy lawsuits.

A 2011 Stanford University study found about 18 percent of parole hearings from 2007-2010 resulted in the parole board recommending release. Of those recommendations, 94 percent were reversed by the governor.

Since taking office in 2011, Governor Jerry Brown has significantly reversed that trend.

According to numbers compiled by Stanford, he's upheld about 82 percent of the board's decisions to grant parole, resulting in about 1,400 lifers being released in the past three years. (Governor Gray Davis only allowed two paroles in three years in office.)

Many lawsuits have sought to curb the governors' practice of denying parole based on factors like the heinousness of the original crime – something that the parole board is not allowed to consider.

Judge Karlton ruled that while governors do have the ability to review the parole board's application of the criteria, they cannot deny parole based on factors outside the rules. And specifically, they can't effectively extend prison time retroactively. So in the case of inmates sentenced before 1988, when the law passed, the governor can't overturn a parole board's decision.

Considering Brown's track record so far, Krisberg said that ruling will likely have little impact, at least in the short run.

Judge's Decision Striking Down Portions of CA Prop. 9 and Prop. 89