News and Commentary

California Supreme Court Rules Thousands Of Sex Offenders Are Eligible For Early Release
Inmates stand outside at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016.
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On Monday, the California Supreme Court ruled that thousands of inmates convicted of non-forcible sex crimes may be eligible for early release under a ballot measure that was overwhelmingly approved by voters four years ago.

The initiative, called Proposition 57, was written by then-Governor Jerry Brown (D) and passed by nearly two-thirds of the electorate. It was crafted to reduce the state’s prison population, saying any person found guilty of a “nonviolent felony offense” would be eligible for early parole. Brown said it was never intended to cover sex offenders. However, the original language did not exempt them from consideration. Lower appeals courts had ruled that nonviolent sex offenders could not be excluded, and the high court affirmed those rulings.

“The initiative’s language provides no indication that the voters intended to allow the (Corrections) Department to create a wholesale exclusion from parole consideration based on an inmate’s sex offense convictions when the inmate was convicted of a nonviolent felony,” wrote Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye in the court’s 7-0 decision.

According to The Associated Press, “the ballot measure allows officials to consider paroling inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes after they have served their basic sentence and before they have completed sometimes lengthy additional terms for enhancements for things like using a gun, having prior criminal convictions, or being involved in a street gang.”

The outlet reported that California law classifies sex crimes “like rape, sodomy, and continuous sexual abuse of a child” as violent offenses but not “pimping, incest, indecent exposure and possessing child pornography.”

Prosecutors had warned voters before Prop. 57’s passage that the proposal was “so sloppily and poorly drafted” it would “wreak havoc on public safety.”

As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, the CDCR had “prohibited the board from considering early release for inmates serving time for a conviction that required registration as a sex offender,” and:

On Monday, the state’s high court ruled unanimously that the department’s regulations were unauthorized by Prop. 57. As of 2018, the state rules barred about 4,400 inmates from being considered for early parole.

A CDCR spokeswoman told The Chronicle that Monday’s ruling “does not mean that sex offenders will automatically be released to the community,” adding that the parole board would “assess their case factors individually, including whether they continue to propose a public safety risk.”

Sacramento attorney Janice Bellucci, who is also the executive director of the Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws, argued the case. She called the decision “a significant victory” for incarcerated people convicted of sex crimes.

Opponents of Prop 57 raised virtually no money to fight the measure in 2016, while top contributors poured more than $11.8 million into the winning campaign. Donors included George Soros’ Open Society Policy Center, the California Democratic Party, and billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer, who went on to fund a drive advocating for the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump.

Related: Gov. Jerry Brown’s ‘Sloppily Drafted’ Law Unravels

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