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California Supreme Court Modifies Settlement to Revise Parole Process

by Derek Gilna

California state prisoner Roy Butler, serving an indeterminate prison term for second-degree murder, sought habeas corpus relief on December 12, 2012, contesting the California Parole Board’s process of calculating the length of his sentence. Butler and the state agreed to a settlement “requiring the [Parole] Board to calculate the ‘base terms’ of an inmate serving an indeterminate sentence for use at the inmate’s initial parole hearing.” [See: PLN, Jan. 2014, p.32].

Prior to 1977, the imposition of a statutory sentence between a minimum and maximum period of imprisonment vested absolute control over the amount of time actually served to the Parole Board, leading to often widely disparate sentences. Although such sentences were largely eliminated after that date, Butler argued that recent statutory changes required a modification of the 2013 settlement. The Court of Appeal rejected his argument and he sought review of that adverse decision.

According to the California Supreme Court, “The [2013] settlement agreement was premised on the idea that ‘base terms’ played some role – defined by statute – in determining release dates for those sentenced to indeterminate terms. Given this premise, the elimination of ‘base term’ calculations from any such role is a sufficiently material change that it not only justifies – but in this case, requires – modification of the settlement by the Court of Appeal.”

“Base term calculations,” the Court continued, “no longer play a role in the public safety assessments undertaken by the Board to determine the release dates for inmates sentenced to indeterminate terms.... And, at least to some extent, these inmates are protected against disproportionate punishment through other means, such as provisions ending indeterminate sentences when individuals have served the statutory minimum term and have been found suitable for release.”

The Court noted that “the release date for indeterminately sentenced adult inmates – like Butler – is now guided by the date when an inmate has served the statutory minimum term and is found suitable for parole based on statutory public-safety-related criteria, subject to limited exception. These changes to California’s criminal justice system do not diminish the societal interest in avoiding arbitrary parole determinations. They do, however, dictate that base terms no longer directly control the release date for prisoners subject to indeterminate sentences.”

In conclusion, the Supreme Court wrote in its April 2, 2018 ruling, “the [Parole] Board is not constitutionally required to continue calculating base terms as required in the settlement order. Accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeal.” See: In re Butler, 4 Cal. 5th 728, 413 P.3d 1178 (Cal. 2018). 


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Related legal case

In re Butler