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California Federal Court Rules Early Release Program Cannot be Restricted to Women

According to a September 8, 2015 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Morrison C. England, Jr., the State of California implemented the Alternative Custody Program (ACP) in 2012 with the goal of reversing the worrisome trend of an increasing female prisoner population. Under the ACP, incarcerated women who qualified for the program could receive a sentence reduction of up to two years, while there was no comparable program for male prisoners. That, said Judge England, was unconstitutional because it violated the equal protection clause.

The district court wrote that the “ACP permits participants to be released from prison to live in a residential home, transitional care facility, or residential drug treatment program for up to the last twenty-four months of their prison sentence,” and each program participant is “monitored by a [probation] agent and is also subject to electronic monitoring and searches.”

While the court said it was “confident that the California Legislature acted with the best of intentions in establishing the ACP ... by insisting that this is just a programming case, Defendants utterly fail to acknowledge Plaintiff’s primary point. This case is not about programming. It is about freedom from incarceration.”

The problem involved the gender-specific provisions of the legislation, the court found: “The line the State has drawn separates male offenders, who must remain inside of prison walls, from female offenders, who may apply to serve the last two years of their sentences in the community. The result is that ACP-eligible male inmates must by definition serve two additional years in a penal institution than they would potentially have to serve if they were female.”

“When the State draws a line between two classes of persons,” the court continued, “and denies one of those classes a right as fundamental as physical freedom, that action survives equal protection review only if the State has a sufficient justification for the classification. Here, the State does not.”

Plaintiff William Sassman was a California prisoner who argued that he met the requirements for admission to the ACP under California Penal Code § 1170.05, but was denied for the sole reason that he was male. He filed administrative grievances with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), which were denied. He then filed suit and both parties moved for summary judgment. The State of California produced experts who testified that the specific needs of incarcerated women were not being met by regular prison programming, while Sassman countered that the exclusion of men from the ACP served no legitimate governmental purpose.

“The State offers no sufficient justification for its gender-based differential treatment of children and their caretakers. Indeed, nothing before the Court is so compelling that it can justify keeping fathers but not mothers from their children,” Judge England stated. “To the contrary, the legislative history makes clear that the well-being of children of inmates was a primary concern. Given the legislative findings, it seems incredibly counter-productive to permit reunification for the children of female offenders and to ignore the same needs of children of male offenders.”

Ultimately, in finding the legislation unconstitutional, the district court held the State of California had relied on “too many generalizations,” and that the ACP program was “fundamentally different from those where the U.S. Supreme Court has approved using gender as a proxy for need.” As a result, limiting the ACP to only female prisoners violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the court enjoined and prohibited the state from enforcing the female-only eligibility requirement for the ACP.

The defendants appealed to the Ninth Circuit in October 2015, shortly before the district court awarded costs to Sassman in the amount of $11,963.56. The appeal was later dismissed after the parties reached a settlement in March 2016 that included $350,000 in attorneys’ fees and $11,963.56 in costs. The settlement also resolved similar claims raised in a separate case, Berman v. Brown, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:15-cv-01722-MCE-KJN, resulting in an additional $30,000 in fees and costs.

Following the district court’s summary judgment order, the defendants submitted a report summarizing the “development and implementation of an Alternative Custody Program for male inmates.” Pursuant to the settlement agreement, “unless CDCR determines that Plaintiff Sassman is ineligible under existing law, regulation, policy, or procedure ... he will be placed into the Alternative Custody Program.”

Lead counsel for the plaintiffs was Gay C. Grunfeld with the San Francisco law firm of Rosen, Bien, Galvan and Grunfeld, LLP. See: Sassman v. Brown, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:14-cv-01679-MCE-KJN. 

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Related legal cases

Berman v. Brown

Sassman v. Brown