CDCR’s regulations excluding nonviolent offenders serving a life sentence from early parole consideration under Proposition 57 are inconsistent with the voters’ intentions and therefore must be repealed. In 1998, Edwards was convicted of nonviolent felonies and sentenced to 53 years to life under the Three Strikes law. After the enactment of Proposition 57 in 2016, Edwards filed a habeas petition challenging regulations that CDCR promulgated, initially on an emergency basis, that made him ineligible for early parole consideration under Proposition 57 even though he was convicted of nonviolent felonies. Held: Petition granted. Proposition 57 added a provision to the California Constitution that provides: “Any person convicted of a nonviolent felony offense and sentenced to state prison shall be eligible for parole consideration after completing the full term for his or her primary offense.” (Cal. Const., art. I, § 32, subd. (a)(1).) It also directed CDCR to adopt regulations in furtherance of this provision. The final version of the regulations adopted in May 2018 (which differed somewhat from the emergency regulations) state that nonviolent offenders are generally eligible for early parole consideration. However, the regulations also specifically state an inmate is not eligible for early parole consideration if “[t]he inmate is currently incarcerated for a term of life with the possibility of parole for an offense that is not a violent felony . . . .” (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15, § 3491, subd. (b)(1).) After analyzing relevant statutes and constitutional provisions and applying rules of statutory construction, the Court of Appeal concluded the voters who approved Proposition 57 clearly intended that inmates serving Three Strikes indeterminate sentences for nonviolent offenses would be eligible for early parole consideration. The court directed CDCR to treat as void and repeal the portion of section 3491, subdivision (b)(1) challenged in this proceeding.
A nonviolent offender may be eligible for early parole consideration when he has served the maximum term he would have faced if the Three Strikes law sentencing scheme had not existed at the time of his sentencing. For purposes of section 32, subdivision (a)(1), the “full term for the primary offense means the longest term of imprisonment imposed by the court for any offense, excluding the imposition of an enhancement, consecutive sentence, or alternative sentence.” The parties agreed that a sentence imposed under the Three Strikes law is an alternative sentence. CDCR argued that Edwards was not entitled to relief at all because a “full term” can only be a prison term that was in fact imposed by the court and not a hypothetical act that could have happened under difference circumstances. The Court of Appeal rejected this “overly literal interpretation,” and reasoned that the language in section 32(a)(1) that excludes any alternative sentence from consideration is most naturally understood as a command to calculate the parole eligibility date as if the Three Strikes law sentencing scheme had not existed at the time of Edwards’ sentencing. In that circumstance, the maximum term Edwards would have faced for his current crimes is three years in state prison. Because he has long since completed that term, he is therefore now eligible for early parole consideration.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/B288086.PDF