by Matt Clarke
After a shootout between rival gangs in downtown Sacramento left six dead and 12 injured—many of them bystanders—on April 3, 2022, one of three suspects apprehended was Smiley Martin. Martin, 27, had been released from custody by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) just two months earlier after serving less than half of a ten-year sentence for assaulting his girlfriend.
That fanned the flames of an already hot debate over changes CDCR announced on December 8, 2021, revising regulations governing good-conduct credits (GCC)—changes challenged by a group of 44 district attorneys in a suit filed in state court against CDCR.
“They’ve been given very broad authority to early release folks and to give them additional credit and all kinds of considerations for purposes of reducing the length of sentence that somebody serves,” tutted former Ventura County district attorney Gregory Totten, who now serves as CEO of the state District Attorneys Association.
So just what are the changes?
First, they do not result in the automatic release of any prisoners.
Second, the state Office of Inspector General (OIG) helped draft the changes, which eliminate the Minimum-Security Credit (30 days good-time credit after every 30 days served) and replace it with a multi-level system granting GCC as a percentage of the sentence depending on (a) the type of facility in which a prisoner is incarcerated and (b) whether the sentence is for a violent or nonviolent crime.
Importantly, the new rules—which are not slated for full implementation until June 2023—also reduce the influence of supervisors on investigations of staff misconduct, after OIG determined that earlier changes which had cost CDCR $10 million had “failed” to address a reporting process that “remains broken.” [See: PLN, June 2021, p. 40.]
Additionally, the changes include an increase in the time limit for filing a grievance to 60 days, with no time limit for allegations of staff misconduct.
New Staff Misconduct
The early release debate has overshadowed the changes regarding staff misconduct allegations, which must now be sent to the Centralized Screening Team at CDCR headquarters. If the allegation involves violence, sexual harassment, dishonesty, discrimination, retaliation, failure to prevent or report misconduct, overfamiliarity with prisoners, or supplying contraband to prisoners, it must then be forwarded to the agency’s Office of Internal Affairs (OIA).
Other allegations are returned to the prison or parole office for further investigation. After the investigation, whether by the prison or OIA, the prison warden makes a determination whether the allegations are sustained, not sustained, unfounded, exonerated, or that no finding was made. Thus wardens retain a great deal of discretion in dealing with staff disciplinary issues.
However, the policy revision also adds several new staff disciplinary offenses, including disabling a body camera, tampering with other audio or visual recordings, stalking, workplace violence, and improperly using weapons off-duty.
New Good-Time Calculations
Also lost in the early-release debate: An analysis by the Prison Law Office which revealed that the new rules actually reduce GCC for those convicted of violent offenses, increasing credits instead for non-violent offenders, especially those who are firefighters.
Under the new system, an eligible prisoner serving time for a nonviolent crime at a conservation (fire) camp or minimum custody prison may earn GCC at a 66.6% ratio, or two days credit for every day served, an increase from the one-for-one credit previously earned.
A prisoner serving a sentence for a violent crime may earn either 50% (one day credit for every day served) at a fire camp or 33.3% (one day credit for every two days served) in a minimum-security prison. That’s less than the one-for-one credit earned before.
Prisoners in disciplinary segregation earn no GCC.
Earlier changes adopted in May 2021—in response to the passage of Proposition 57—confused prisoners because credit wasn’t calculated on the entire sentence, so the calculation had to be updated every month. This gave the appearance of moving a prisoner’s release date further into the future. The new change reinstates calculating GCC based on the entire sentence.
The new rules took effect on January 1, 2022, though their application to second-strike prisoners was briefly stayed by a state court in Sacramento after the district attorneys filed their lawsuit, claiming second-strikers with “long and violent criminal histories” could be released after serving as little as one-third of their sentences.
Wanting It Both Ways
CDCR maintains that classification of a sentence as nonviolent depends upon the sentence currently being served, not criminal history. That sentence, in turn, results from convictions that are the work of district attorneys, who may accept pleas for lesser crimes to win an easier conviction but then also want to keep the prisoner locked up.
Indeed, Smiley was released from a sentence imposed for “punching a girlfriend, dragging her from her home by her hair, and whipping her with a belt,” according to news reports, and none of those offenses is a violent crime. Moreover, his early release was not calculated under the new rules but rather under those that had been made previously, which bumped his GCC from 20% to 50%.
He had been denied parole in 2021 after Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert objected that his lengthy criminal recorded showed he “clearly has little regard for human life and the law.” Yet it was Schubert’s office that made a plea deal in 2018 to drop a charge for kidnapping the girlfriend he assaulted, a violent offense that would have reduced Martin’s GCC and kept him behind bars.
Additional sources: ABC News, KCRA, KXXV, Sacramento Bee
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