By Thomas Gardner
The Supreme Court recently decided that validated prison-gang members do not have a right to earn good-time credits when serving time in the SHU (Security Housing Unit).
The ruling upholds a California law enacted in 2010 that added gang membership to a list of violations and infractions that disqualify SHU inmates from receiving time off of their sentences.
“Before the 2010 law, some prisoners could keep accruing credits for eventual early release while in secure housing,” McClatchy News staff writer Michael Doyle explained.
(SHU houses inmates who have been classified as safety and or security threats in relation to other inmates, staff or the institution as a whole. As a result, they are assigned to cells in facilities that isolate them from the prison’s general population).
The 6-2 decision rendered by the highest court reverses an earlier ruling made by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that questioned the 2010 law, according to the McClatchy News.
“That is a terrible ruling to get from the Supreme Court. I guess it means litigants will have to find a way to get a case before the state supreme court,” says Los Angeles–based defense attorney Caleb Mason, according to McClatchy.
The legal action was brought by Corcoran inmate Antonio A. Hinojosa, who began serving a 16-year sentence for armed robbery and related crimes in 2003.
In 2009 Hinojosa was validated as a member of the Mexican Mafia by Corcoran prison officials, McClatchy reports.
Later, in 2010, Hinojosa realized that the policy change regarding earned credits would cause him to remain incarcerated in the SHU for a year longer than under the prior rules. From that point forward he did not let up at challenging the new policy that excluded him from credit earnings that other inmates were receiving, McClatchy reports.
After repeated unsuccessful attempts at being granted relief through the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) administrative appeals process, Hinojosa petitioned the State Supreme Court for relief, McClatchy says.
By diligently following the rules of the legal process through multiple levels of judicial review, “in February 2015, against the odds, the Ninth Circuit sided with Hinojosa’s complaint that the 2010 state law violated the Constitution’s ban on ex post facto laws. These are laws that punish someone retroactively, for past actions that were formerly not illegal,” says Doyle.
“In punishing Hinojosa for his in-prison gang-related misconduct, the state has effectively increased his prison sentence for his underlying crimes. And it has done so by means of a regulation that was enacted after Hinojosa committed those crimes,” Judge Carlos T. Bea wrote, according to McClatchy.
However, Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office in turn sought a Supreme Court review of Hinojosa’s case, noting that the 2010 law had previously survived a challenge from an alleged Mexican Mafia member at Pelican Bay State Prison. Harris argued [by brief] that the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning “makes no sense at all,” Doyle reports.
Although the high court ultimately rejected Hinojosa’s claim, justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg entered a written dissent against the majority opinion, calling it an unsound argument.
The Supreme Court’s unsigned ruling was issued without oral argument and could affect other state prisoners, especially concerning court procedure in handling inmates’ habeas corpus petitions, according to McClatchy.
Even while “he lost; in being heard, he also made a point,” said Doyle, speaking of Hinojosa.
As an indication of how difficult it is to have a case heard by the nation’s top court, McClatchy says that out of more than 7,000 petitions received last year by the Supreme Court, it issued only 186 written opinions.
Hinojosa has since paroled from Corcoran, according to the news report.