California’s controversial parole overhaul advances

In 2011, Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison population by 30,000. New parole system guidelines are designed to help lower the prison population. 

In 2011, Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison population by 30,000. New parole system guidelines are designed to help lower the prison population. 

By Christopher Zoukis

California corrections officials are revamping the state’s parole system, aiming to make thousands more inmates eligible for early release.

Last November, by a nearly 2-1 margin, California voters approved Proposition 57, a ballot initiative seeking to trim the state prison system’s population by 11,500 over the next four years.

As approved, Proposition 57 would create additional ways inmates could earn credits to reduce the length of sentences, such as by signing up for some education, career or rehabilitation classes, and other moves to build up "good time" credits. The initiative also empowered the State Board of Parole Hearings to give early release to a new category of state prison inmates —  those who have served their base sentence term for a primary crime not designated by state law as a violent offense, even if they have not yet served time for sentence enhancements and additional charges.

California drafted Proposition 57 because since 2009, the state has been facing court orders to reduce overcrowding in its prisons. To avoid a court-ordered cap on its prison population, the state has transferred thousands of inmates to out-of-state prisons or to county jails. Its “three strikes” law was also eased, along with reduced penalties for some drug and petty theft offenses. The new rules, the state estimates, should free over 500 inmates during the current fiscal year, which began in July.

In March, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation proposed regulations to implement Proposition 57, and in mid-April, the state gave those guidelines initial approval, putting them temporarily in place for 160 days, while further comment is gathered from other officials and the public. But since that point, little has gone smoothly for parole revision plans.

As issued, the guidelines allow inmates to cut their sentences by as much as six months for earning a high school diploma or gaining a college degree, and reduce their sentences by as much as a month in a year for successfully completing certain rehabilitation or self-help courses in areas such as drug abuse, parenting, counseling or anger management. Certain milestone achievements in some rehab programs could bring even greater credits — as much as 12 weeks during a yearlong period.

The proposals have faced criticism by some prosecutor and law enforcement groups, many of whom also opposed Proposition 57. Critics call for narrowing the scope of sentence reductions, claiming some dangerous felons might be able to use the new credits to gain a chance at parole. The proposed education credits would be unavailable for inmates sentenced to death, but some critics say those serving life sentences should not qualify for such credits.

In the face of criticism from legislators and others, the issued guidelines placed an additional restriction on the new parole eligibility for nonviolent offenders, by excluding inmates who have to register with the state, to prevent sex offenders whose crimes are not defined as violent from being eligible for early parole. That drew a still-pending lawsuit against the state corrections department from the nonprofit group The Alliance For Constitutional Sex Offense Laws. It argued denying early parole to all sex offenders violates Proposition 57, since many sex crimes are not defined as violent.

The state is taking public comments on the proposed guidelines, and an open meeting set for Sept. 1 in Sacramento will also invite public input.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.