Opinion By: Justice Cuéllar (joined by Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Corrigan, Kruger, Groban, and Grover (Court of Appeal Justice). Justice Liu filed a concurring opinion.
The Court of Appeal erred in terminating petitioner’s period of parole supervision solely based on its conclusion that petitioner had served an excessive prison sentence in violation of the state and federal Constitutions. In 1988, Palmer, then 17 years old, pleaded guilty to kidnapping for robbery and was sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole. He first sought release from the Board of Parole Hearings in 1995 but was denied. Following the Board’s 10th denial, Palmer filed a habeas petition, alleging that the 30 years he had already served for a crime committed when he was a juvenile was constitutionally excessive. Before the Court of Appeal could adjudicate the petition, the Board found Palmer suitable for parole and ordered him released on parole for a five-year period. The Court of Appeal retained the petition and granted relief, concluding that his now-completed term of imprisonment had become unconstitutional before his release on parole. Additionally, the court held Palmer was entitled to release from all forms of custody, including parole supervision. The California Supreme Court granted review. Held: Reversed. Imprisonment and parole both involve custodial forms of punishment, and each constitutes part of the punishment for the underlying crime. While parole and imprisonment are often tethered, “[a] constitutional error involving one aspect of punishment does not inevitably and fatally infect all other aspects.” Parole is a distinct phase from a term of imprisonment and serves different objectives. “At least when parole works as intended, it is a sufficiently vital part of the rehabilitation process that ought not be categorically discarded simply because an inmate establishes that the preceding period of incarceration became constitutionally disproportionate.” The court declined to decide whether Palmer’s continued incarceration became cruel or unusual because the Board had released him on parole. But even assuming his incarceration became disproportionate, that finding alone would not guarantee the automatic termination of his statutory parole period. The Court of Appeal erred in ending Palmer’s parole. [Editor’s Notes: (1) Palmer’s current habeas corpus petition challenged parole categorically, not particular parole conditions. Although Palmer did not develop a record to show that parole, in itself, is so fatally and unduly punitive as to violate the state Constitution, or that parole, following 30 years of incarceration, would necessarily be cruel or unusual, the court noted its “opinion should not be read to foreclose such claims.” (2) The court declined to decide whether reincarceration of a parolee would run afoul of the state Constitution, where, as here, the parolee claims that continued incarceration has become excessive.]
Inmates serving life sentences who are denied release on parole may bring their constitutional challenges directly to court through habeas petitions. Palmer argued he had properly presented a claim that his punishment was cruel or unusual within the meaning of the state Constitution. Amicus curiae California District Attorneys Association disagreed, arguing instead that inmates should not be allowed to argue their continued incarceration has become constitutionally excessive unless a Board panel first finds that he or she no longer represents a current threat to public safety. The Supreme Court concluded the Board’s denial of parole does not prevent inmates serving indeterminate terms, like Palmer, from challenging their continued incarceration as cruel or unusual under the California Constitution in court. The Board’s paramount consideration in making release determinations is whether the inmate currently poses a threat to public safety. The Board is not required to consider whether an inmate’s life term has become constitutionally excessive. Life prisoners who have been denied parole but who believe, because of the particular circumstances of their crimes, that their confinements have become constitutionally excess as a result, may bring their claims directly to court by habeas petitions. The Board’s denial of parole does not prevent inmates serving indeterminate terms, like Palmer, from challenging their continued incarceration as cruel or unusual under the California Constitution. When a court assesses the constitutionality of a prison term, it must be mindful of the Legislatures broad discretion over the types and limits of punishment. When deciding whether a prison term has become excessive, the court analyzes the challenged punishment under the lenient legal standard set forth in In re Foss (1974) 10 Cal.3d 910, and In re Lynch (1972) 8 Cal.3d 410. [Editor’s Note: Justice Liu wrote a concurring opinion to make two points. (1) He would make clear a finding of excessiveness as to incarceration necessarily entails that a parolee may not be reincarcerated for violating parole in order to give Palmer some peace of mind. (2) The majority opinion determined that the Court of Appeal’s termination of Palmer’s parole was erroneous because it relied on a rule of automatic entitlement. However, that is not the only reading of the Court of Appeal’s opinion. It appears that the Court of Appeal reached an individualized conclusion as to the unlawfulness of the parole term in Palmer’s specific case; if that is true, then Palmer’s litigation of this point in further proceedings will be redundant.]