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California: Court May Not Award Increased Presentence Conduct Credits to Categorically Disqualified Prisoners

On July 19, 2012, the California Supreme Court held that a trial court’s discretionary power to dismiss a criminal action “in furtherance of justice” pursuant to Penal Code Section 1385 did not extend so far that it could disregard the facts that categorically disqualify a prisoner held in local custody (i.e., jail) from earning conduct credits at an increased rate under a former statute that allowed such increased credits.

As part of its response to a state fiscal emergency, the California legislature increased the rate at which certain prisoners in local custody could earn conduct credits to reduce their terms of incarceration. The increased credit-earning statute, former Penal Code Section 4019, went into effect in January 2010 but was short-lived; it excluded, among others, prisoners with prior convictions for a serious or violent felony.

Ricardo Antonio Lara was arrested and charged with several crimes committed in February 2010, when former Section 4019 was in effect. Due to a prior conviction for burglary, however, he was disqualified from earning conduct credits at the increased rate specified by that statute.

Pursuant to the terms of a negotiated plea bargain, the trial court exercised its discretion under Section 1385 to strike Lara’s prior burglary conviction, a serious felony which otherwise would have subjected him to enhanced sentencing under California’s infamous “Three Strikes” law. The court concluded, however, that it could not disregard Lara’s prior conviction for the purpose of granting him increased conduct credits under Section 4019.

Disagreeing, the Court of Appeal reversed and directed the trial court to exercise its discretion under Section 1385 to decide whether Lara should receive the benefit of the increased credit-earning provisions of former Section 4019. See: People v. Lara, 193 Cal. App. 4th 1393 (Cal. App. 6th Dist. 2011).

On review, the Supreme Court held that Section 1385 does not confer such authority to a trial court, noting that “The historical facts that limit a defendant’s ability to earn conduct credits do not form part of the charges and allegations in a criminal action.” Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeal was reversed. See: People v. Lara, 54 Cal. 4th 896, 281 P.3d 72 (Cal. 2012).

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Related legal case

People v. Lara