The California Supreme Court today rejected an interpretation of California’s Proposition 57 that would have allowed convicted felons with a determinate sentence for a mix of violent and non-violent felony convictions to seek parole, when those with only a single violent crime conviction could not. That such a bizarre result is even a plausible reading goes only to show how poorly written and poorly conceived this initiative was.
How did all this even get on the agenda?
In 1976, then-Governor Jerry Brown signed California’s Determinate Sentencing Law. That law abolished indeterminate sentences and parole for most crimes. It substituted sentences for a fixed term, known as determinate sentences, subject to reduction only with certain credits authorized by statute, such as for good behavior, work, or education. In 2016, then-again-Governor Jerry Brown, backed by deep-pocketed malanthropist George Soros, sold an initiative to Californians providing for, among other things, parole for determinate sentenced felons “convicted of a nonviolent felony offense.”
From the arguments made for the initiative, it is clear that the proponents were telling the voters that violent felons were excluded from this provision. That is, it was for felons convicted only of one or more nonviolent offenses and no violent offenses. Indeed, one of their selling points was that releasing nonviolent felons would free up prison space to insure that the violent ones would not be released by federal court order and would be kept locked up.
But a strictly literal reading produces a surprising and absurd result. Law school exam style, say Don is convicted of one count of robbery, a violent offense. Dave is convicted of 17 counts of robbery and one count of possessing stolen goods, a nonviolent offense. Literally, Dave has been “convicted of a nonviolent offense” while Don has not. Does that mean Dave is eligible for Prop. 57 parole while Don is not? Does Dave get more lenient treatment for committing additional crimes?
That would be absurd. And that is why you don’t draft constitutional amendments on cocktail napkins over drinks at Frank Fat’s (a long-time Sacramento political hangout).
A California Court of Appeal actually bought the argument, but today the Supreme Court unanimously reversed.
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