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Name: In re Butler
Case #: S237014
Court: CA Supreme Court
District CalSup
Opinion Date: 04/02/2018
Summary

Due to changes in the laws governing parole, the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) is no longer required to calculate base terms when deciding whether a defendant is suitable for release. Butler was convicted of second degree murder in 1988. In 2012 he filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus arguing that BPH violated his constitutional rights by declining to calculate his base term prior to finding him suitable for parole. The BPH agreed to a stipulated order requiring it to calculate the base terms of an inmate serving an indeterminate sentence for use at the inmate’s initial parole hearing. At that time, a calculated base term governed the earliest possible release date for inmates serving indeterminate terms, but they no longer do. BPH sought modification of the order to relieve it of any obligation to calculate the base term. The Court of Appeal denied relief and BPH sought review. Held: Reversed. For inmates serving indeterminate sentences, BPH determines their release date via a finding the inmate is suitable for parole, i.e., does not pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society if released from prison. In the past, parole suitability was based on the inmate’s base term, which is calculated using regulatory matrices (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15). However, since the order was issued in this case, there have been major changes in the law. In 2014, SB No. 260 required that inmates who committed indeterminate sentence offenses prior to their 18th birthday (now age 25) be released once they are found suitable for parole, regardless of what their minimum sentence would be based on their base term. A similar change grants release to elderly inmates serving indeterminate terms. In 2015, SB No. 230 provided that an inmate’s sentence ends once he is found suitable for parole and has served the minimum statutory term for his offense. Thus, base terms no longer directly control the release date for indeterminately-sentenced inmates. As intervening legal changes have undermined the order’s foundational assumptions, modification of the settlement agreement is required.

The base term calculations are not necessary to assure life prisoners will not suffer constitutionally excessive punishment. An indeterminately-sentenced inmate has a constitutional right to a sentence that is not disproportionate to his offense. However, the mostly determinate sentencing scheme now in effect reflects the Legislature’s effort to reduce the number of indeterminately-sentenced inmates, thereby limiting the possibility that serious offenders will serve constitutionally excessive sentences. In addition, base term calculations no longer factor into public safety assessments undertaken by BPH to determine the release dates for inmates serving indeterminate terms. Further, base terms were not well-suited as a tool for avoiding unconstitutionally long terms of incarceration, as they were designed to set forth an inmate’s minimum sentence rather than the maximum term permitted by the Constitution. Thus, BPH is not constitutionally required to continue calculating base terms as previously required in the settlement order.

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S237014.PDF