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Parole Board Accused of Violating Settlement with Life Prisoners

San Francisco Chronicle

The California parole board agreed more than two years ago to tell all life prisoners, at their first hearing, the appropriate sentence for their crime, but inmates’ lawyers who negotiated the settlement says the board has violated its pledge more than 1,600 times.

More than 1,100 cases involved elderly inmates or those who were minors when convicted of serious crimes. The board claimed it was not required to notify those two groups, but a state appeals court has rejected that position. In 513 additional cases, the inmates’ lawyers say, the parole board offered no justification for failing to provide the notice required by the settlement.

“The board has willfully disobeyed the settlement order,” attorney Andrea Nill Sanchez said in a filing this week with the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco. She asked the court to hold the Board of Parole Hearings in contempt and fine it $1,000 for each violation of the agreement.

The board on Thursday declined to comment.

The appeals court approved the settlement in December 2013, with an effective date of April 2014. It required the board to inform life-term inmates of their “base term” — the sentence they could expect to serve because of the circumstances of their crime — at their first parole hearing.

For example, someone convicted of second-degree murder, which carries a legal sentence of 15 years to life, might get a base term of 15 or 16 years if the crime was not extraordinarily violent and the defendant was an accomplice rather than the actual killer. If the crime was horrific and the defendant killed an innocent victim, the base term might be 20 years or more. California has more than 30,000 inmates, most of them convicted murderers, serving life terms with the possibility of parole.

Once an inmate has served the base term, the board must grant parole at the next hearing unless it has evidence, which can be tested in court, that the inmate is still dangerous. Before the settlement, the board was calculating the base term only after deciding that a life-term inmate no longer posed a danger to the public and was suitable for release. Defense lawyers said many inmates learned their base term had passed long before they were granted parole.

According to court filings, the parole board decided last year that, because of new state laws, it lacked authority to give the notice required by the settlement to two groups of life prisoners: those 60 years or older who had served 25 years in prison, and those who committed their crimes as minors, were sentenced as adults, and had served at least 15 years. So far, Sanchez said in her filing, the board has held 466 hearings for the older group, and 676 for the younger group, without providing notice of their base terms.

The laws entitle both groups to additional parole hearings at which the board must consider their age, and the youths’ maturity at the time of the crime, in deciding whether they are eligible for release. Because some of those prisoners might be freed before completing their base term, state lawyers argued that the base was no longer significant to either group and that notification was no longer required.

The appeals court disagreed. For those prisoners, as for all others serving life terms, the base term “indicates the point at which a prison term becomes constitutionally excessive,” and the notification requirement increases the likelihood of an appropriate sentence, Presiding Justice J. Anthony Kline said in a July 27 order refusing to change the settlement.

No California prisoner has yet used a base term to contest his or her continued confinement, said Sharif Jacob, another lawyer for the inmates. But now that life prisoners are supposed to receive earlier notice of their base term, he said, “it’s a starting point for a constitutional challenge.”