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California Appellate Court: State Prisoners Held in Jail and Those Held in Prisons Not Alike for Sentence Credits

by Jacob Barrett

On September 28, 2022, the Supreme Court of California declined to hear an appeal to a lower court’s decision that shrugged off differences in program credits available to state prisoners held in prisons and those held in local jails. That left standing a decision by the First Appellate District of the state Court of Appeal on June 23, 2022, which found the two groups are not similarly situated for the purposes of such earned-time credits.

The case was brought by state prisoner Emanuel O. Cuenca. In 2018, he pled guilty to false imprisonment and resisting arrest resulting in serious bodily injury to an officer. He was sentenced to three years of probation. Then, while on probation, he was charged in a new case with assault and making criminal threats. The trial court revoked his probation and sentenced Cuenca on all the felony convictions to an aggregate of five years and two months.

Cuenca appealed the convictions, also petitioning for a writ of habeas corpus, under the argument that rehabilitation programming was unavailable to him while held in Napa County Jail (NCJ), so he couldn’t get earned-time credit for completing it as he would in a state prison where such programming is provided. That, he said, violated the equal protection guarantees of both the federal and California constitutions.

Cuenca based his challenge on the California Justice Realignment Act of 2011 (CJRA), which requires the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to house low-level offenders in county jails as opposed to prison, in order to provide them with access to community-based programs and to improve public safety. NCJ, where he was held, had opted out of providing prisoners with programming that could result in earned time credit and earlier release. Cuenca said this wasn’t fair – that he was entitled to the same program credits as other state prisoners held in state prisons.

Napa county did not dispute that prisoners in NCJ were treated differently from prisoners held in state prisons. The county simply argued that providing programming eligible for credits was discretionary; based on that alone, therefore, CJRA prisoners in county jails and prisons were not similarly situated. The Court agreed with the county.

“Based on the express language in the Realignment Act” the Court wrote, “we conclude that, on the face of the statute, the two groups at issue here cannot be treated as similarly situated.”

But wait, Cuenca argued; wasn’t it true “that giving counties the discretion to withhold such programming opportunities results in arbitrary treatment” differences between state and county jail prisoners? No, the Court replied. Lawmakers decided “to give counties complete discretion about whether to offer programming, while giving no such discretion to the CDCR,” the Court noted. Even if that resulted in a treatment difference, it wasn’t arbitrary.

“The dispositive consideration here,” the Court continued, “is that…it would have been foreseeable [to lawmakers] that a particular county might opt out of credit programming for fiscal reasons, as Napa County did.” But the legislature passed the law anyway, and the Court said, “We see nothing arbitrary about that.”

The Court further rationalized its decision by stating that sustaining Cuenca’s claim would require it to “micromanage budget choices made by Napa County.” In that context, the Court found Cuenca’s argument boiled down to a difference in policy rather than a violation of equal protections. That would be better addressed by the legislature or the Napa County Board of Supervisors, it said. Thus the Court affirmed the convictions and dismissed the habeas petition. On appeal, Cuenca was represented by appointed counsel, Aptos attorney Heather E. Shallenberger. See: In re Cuenca, 80 Cal. App. 5th 194 (2022).

Perhaps activists will take up the Court’s challenge to address bodies like the county Board of Supervisors to press for criminal justice reform.

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