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33,000 California Prisoners May Need Credits Recalculated Due To Retroactive State Court Decisions

by John E. Dannenberg

Three recent California court decisions interpreting California’s sentencing laws have spawned a need for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to recalculate the release dates of an estimated 33,000 current prisoners. It is unknown how many of the 33,000 will actually gain earlier release as a result. The pressure to perform the calculations came from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 1000, which filed a petition for writ of mandate commanding CDCR to perform these calculations. SEIU’s motive is to require CDCR to hire more SEIU union record clerks to do the auditing, but its pleadings are couched sympathetically in taxpayer cost savings from reduced prison overcrowding when overincarcerated prisoners are released.

The first court case, In re Phelon, 132 Cal.App.4th 1214 (2005) affected the calculation of behavioral credits for prisoners serving composite terms for both violent and nonviolent crimes (which have different credit earning rates). Next, In re Reeves, 35 Cal.4th 765 (2005) restored the more favorable earned credits of non-violent offenders who also had stayed sentences for violent offenses, but which CDCR had arbitrarily taxed at the less generous violent offense rate. Finally, In re Tate, 135 Cal.App.4th 756 (2006) dealt with credit-earning rates where the prisoner was serving time for two separately obtained convictions, one violent and one nonviolent.

The job of verifying the accuracy of newly arrived prisoners’ sentencing and credits falls to CDCR’s audit section, staffed by SEIU members. The SEIU was already upset that there were too few auditors employed to do the normal case work load, let alone to go back over older files to accommodate the new court rulings. At an average cost of $43,000 per prisoner per year, potential cost savings are huge, even net of increased auditing costs.

Accordingly, the SEIU blew the whistle by filing a petition for writ of mandate in December 2007 to force CDCR to do its ministerial auditing duty. The petition attacked the Governor’s “state of emergency” plan to build new prisons as improvident in light of this wrongful excess incarceration. Likewise, it attacked the need to ship CDCR’s excess population out of state to private lockups when significant reduction in CDCR’s overcrowding could be accomplished just by catching up on backlogged case file reviews. Also alluded to was California’s potential damage liability from prisoner lawsuits. Finally, the petition attacked the de facto failure of CDCR to do its file reviewing job as being an underground policy adopted outside the necessary rule-making procedures required by California’s Administrative Procedures Act.

CDCR spokesman Seth Unger announced that CDCR plans to hire more staff to tackle the Reeves/Phelon/Tate-engendered recalculations. But a doubtful SEIU vice-president Marc Bautista, who filed the suit, stated that CDCR would not hire or train enough people to do the court-ordered work.
Additionally, tension exists between the SEIU and the prison guards union (CCPOA): more SEIU auditors could result in fewer prison guards. Bautista estimates that 33,000 prisoners overdetained by 60 days would cost taxpayers $235 million at a time when the state is planning to bond $7.3 billion for new prison construction to house 16,000 new prisoners and also spend $115 million to house current excess ones out-of-state.

Unless and until CDCR is forced to do the auditing, the only prisoners who will get relief from such overincarceration are those who can afford attorneys or who can petition the courts in pro per. See: Bautista v. Schwarzenegger, Sacramento County Superior Court Case No.__, petition for Writ of Mandate (December 11, 2007).

Additional sources: Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, SEIU Local 1000.

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Related legal case

Bautista v. Schwarzenegger