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California Parole Procedures Upheld

By Brandon Sample

The California Court of Appeals for the Sixth District has rejected a constitutional challenge to the Board of Parole Hearings' (Board) procedures and regulations.

The controversy over the Board's parole procedures arose after Donald Lewis, Morriss Bragg, Viet Ngo, Donnell Jameison, and Arthur Criscione were denied parole. Lewis and the other prisoners, each serving indeterminate life terms for murder, sought habeas relief.
After discovery and an extensive evidentiary hearing, the Superior Court granted the prisoners' habeas petitions. The court found that the Board was "carelessly distorting and misapplying" its regulations. The court pointed to the Board's finding in 100 percent of cases where parole was denied that the crime the defendant was convicted of was "especially" heinous, atrocious, or cruel as evidence that its decisions were not made on the basis of "detailed guidelines and individualized consideration." The term "especially," the court wrote, "cannot possibly apply in 100% of cases." According to the court, this demonstrated that the Board was applying its regulations arbitrarily.

Consequently, the court held that the Board's regulations were unconstitutionally vague as applied to the petitioners, and that the Board was violating separation of powers by conferring upon itself "absolute power over parole matters."

The Board appealed the Superior Court's decision after it was directed to implement a training program for its members in the application of parole suitability criteria as explained by relevant state and federal judicial opinions, including continuing education for commissioners as new case law is published.

In a decision handed down March 13, 2009, the appeals court reversed. "In reviewing the Board's decision that an inmate is not suitable for parole the question is whether or not the Board's conclusion that a particular inmate poses a current danger to society is supported by the Board's analysis of the various unsuitability and suitability factors, not whether or not the Board habitually describes all commitment offenses as 'especially' heinous, atrocious, or cruel." Accordingly, the Superior Court's finding that the Board's parole procedures were being misapplied and were unconstitutionally vague was reversed.

The court of appeals' decision did not foreclose all relief for the prisoners, though. The court reserved judgment on the merits of the prisoners' individual petitions, remanding the matter to the Superior Court for further proceedings.

See: In re Donald Ray Lewis, 172 Cal.App.4th 13, 91 Cal.Rptr.3d 72 (6th App. Dist, 2009).

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Related legal case

In re Donald Ray Lewis