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California Prisoner Wins Reversal of Ex Post Facto Denial of Sentence Credits

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), has a long-standing policy of segregating gang members in Special Housing Units (SHU) to reduce violence. It also has a policy of day-for-day good time for CDCR prisoners. This case arose out of a 2010 statute reducing the good time credits of SHU prisoners to one-for-three days served. According to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, "The issue here is whether the 2010 amendment violates the Ex Post Facto Clause of the United States Constitution when applied to a prisoner whose underlying criminal offense was committed before that amendment's enactment. We conclude it does."

The Court first examined the CDCR segregation policy, and noted that a prisoner could be "validated" as a "prison-gang associate" and then transferred to the SHU. Prisoners so classified can get out of the SHU by either going "inactive," by not being involved in gang activity for six years, or "debrief," and give testimony on their former associates. Antonio Hinojosa, was convicted in 2003 but was not "validated" as a gang member until 2009. As a result of that change in status, although he retained his original accumulated sentence credit, he lost the chance to accumulate additional good time on a one-for-one basis, even though he had been convicted seven years before the enactment of the change.

Hinojosa, after exhausting his administrative remedies, filed a habeas corpus action in state court seeking relief, but was denied at both the superior court and appellate court level. He then filed a federal court habeas petition, which was also denied as the district court level. He alleged that that the reduction of prison conduct credit violated the terms of his plea agreement, and that it was violative of the ex-post facto clause.

The Ninth Circuit had previously denied relief under the 2010 good-time reducing statute, in the cases of Nevarez v. Barnes in 2014, because of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDEPA), since AEDEPA barred habeas relief "with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings." However, as the Ninth Circuit noted, that was not the case in the case of Hinojosa: "the state has not raised a state procedural ground as a defense (and the) defense is thus waived."

The Court had no quarrel with "whether the state can enact a new statute punishing in-prison misconduct. Nor do we question here whether the state can apply that new (2010) statute to prisoners whose underlying criminal conduct predates the statute's enactment.  But the state cannot use such a statute retroactively to effect an increase in prison time.  The Ex-Post Facto Clause forbids it." See: Hinojosa v. Davey, 13-56012, (9th Cir. 2015).

Unfortunately, the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in favor of Hinojosa was later overturned by the Supreme Court.

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Related legal case

Hinojosa v. Davey