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California Law Denying Good Time Credits to Gang Members in SHUs Held Constitutional

California Law Denying Good Time Credits to Gang Members in SHUs Held Constitutional

by David Reutter

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held on April 25, 2014 that a California law which denies good conduct credits to prisoners who are validated gang members held in a Security Housing Unit (SHU) does not violate the Ex Post Facto Clause.

California prisoner Manuel Francisco Nevarez received a 12-year prison sentence for robbery in 2000. Eight years later he was convicted of smuggling marijuana into prison, resulting in an additional three-year sentence. To compound his problems, on December 12, 2008, prison officials validated him as an associate of the Mexican Mafia prison gang, which resulted in an indeterminate term in the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison.

On January 25, 2010, California Penal Code Section 2933.6 was amended to make validated gang affiliates ineligible to earn sentence reduction credits while “in the Security Housing Unit, Psychiatric Services Unit, Behavioral Management Unit, or the Administrative Segregation Unit for that misconduct.”

Prior to the amendment, Nevarez earned one day of good conduct credit for every two days served. While he did not lose the credits earned prior to the statutory amendment, he could no longer earn them while held in the SHU. He challenged the amendment as a violation of the Ex Post Facto Clause of the U.S. Constitution. His habeas corpus petitions in state courts and federal district court were denied, and he appealed.

Nevarez argued that Weaver v. Graham, 450 U.S. 24 (1981) and Lynce v. Mathis, 519 U.S. 433 (1997) [PLN, April 1997, p.1] made it clear that a post-conviction amendment that diminishes a prisoner’s good time credits for prior conduct violates the Ex Post Facto Clause because it effectively increases the prisoner’s punishment – i.e., the length of time he must serve.

The Ninth Circuit determined the facts in Weaver and Lynce were distinguishable. It agreed with a state court that found Section 2933.6 does not punish “the criminal conduct for which petitioner was imprisoned,” but instead “punishes for conduct that occurred after the commission of, or the conviction for, the punishable offense.”

The appellate court noted the only relevant question under the AEDPA is whether that analysis is an objectively unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. “It is not,” the Court of Appeals held. Accordingly, the district court’s denial of Nevarez’s habeas petition was affirmed. See: Nevarez v. Barnes, 749 F.3d 1124 (9th Cir. 2014), petition for cert. filed.


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Related legal cases

Nevarez v. Barnes

Lynce v. Mathis

Weaver v. Graham