Court Rules Parole Board Must Set Base Terms for Lifers Early On

By Chung Kao

The state parole board must continue to set base terms at a life prisoner’s first hearing, a California appellate court ruled in a settlement July.

The decision was in response to the board’s request earlier this year to be relieved of its obligations to do so because of changes in the state penal code.

“By requiring the board to calculate the base and adjusted base term at the initial parole hearing rather than after the grant of parole, the settlement…better assure(s) life prisoners will not suffer constitutionally excessive punishment,” the court said in denying the request.

All life-with-parole sentences have minimums set by law, but a base term measures the severity of a life prisoner’s crime and sets a sentence that is proportionate to the offense. For example, an inmate could have a minimum term of 15 years, but a base term of 21 years.

The practice was designed to prevent unjustly long sentences. The board used to defer setting those terms until after parole was granted. This meant that an inmate could end up serving 30 years even though his base term was significantly less.

In 2011, prisoner Roy T. Butler filed a petition claiming that the board’s practice violated his constitutional rights. In December 2013, the board settled the case, agreeing to calculate base terms for all life prisoners with the possibility of parole at their initial parole hearing.

But since then, the board stopped calculating the terms for offenders who are eligible for youth offender or elderly review because they are released immediately once the parole decision has become final, regardless of the time remaining in their base terms.

After a recent change in the state law expanded that practice to all life prisoners granted parole, the board asked the court on Jan. 28 to relieve it of the responsibility to set base terms.

In the latest ruling, the Court of Appeals denied the board’s request.

“(T)he only limitation on the Board’s discretion to deny parole is the cruel and/or unusual punishment provisions of the federal and state constitutions, the application of which is assisted by the term-fixing requirements specified in the settlement,” the court stated.

Presiding Justice J. Anthony Kline authored the opinion for the court. Kline was the main guest at the San Quentin News forum on Aug. 12. He served six years as legal affairs secretary for Gov. Jerry Brown and was appointed to the San Francisco Superior Court in 1980 and to the California Court of Appeals for the First District in 1982.


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