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In re Butler

Filed 4/2/18 IN THE SUPREME COURT OF CALIFORNIA ) ) In re ROY BUTLER ) ) S237014 ) on Habeas Corpus. ) Ct.App. 1/2 A139411 ) ) Alameda County ____________________________________) Super. Ct. No. 91694B People convicted of noncapital murder and certain other criminal offenses in California serve indeterminate sentences that run from a minimum number of years to life, making release possible before the end of their life. The Board of Parole Hearings (the Board) decides, subject to relevant statutory provisions and review by the Governor, whether such prisoners are suitable for release. This case concerns the interaction of those statutory provisions with a settlement agreement arising from litigation about the Board’s procedures. While serving an indeterminate prison term, Roy Butler filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus on December 12, 2012, alleging in part that the Board had a responsibility to avoid parole determinations leading to grossly disproportionate prison terms. In 2013, petitioner Roy Butler and respondent, the Board, agreed to a settlement requiring the Board to calculate the “base terms” of an inmate serving an indeterminate sentence for use at the inmate’s initial parole hearing. At the time of the settlement agreement, “base terms” governed the earliest possible release date for inmates serving indeterminate sentences. Since then, changes to California’s 1 criminal justice system have altered the relevant statutory landscape, such that “base terms” no longer govern the release date of inmates subject to indeterminate sentences. The question before us is whether those statutory developments warrant modification of the settlement order to relieve the Board of any separate obligation to calculate “base terms” under the agreement. The Court of Appeal concluded the answer was no, so the settlement order could remain in force despite the statutory changes. We disagree. The 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. The Court of Appeal also concluded that specific “base term” calculations were necessary to assure life prisoners would not suffer constitutionally excessive punishment. Here too, we differ with the appellate court. Base term calculations 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 are not designed or obviously well-suited as a tool for avoiding unconstitutionally long terms of incarceration. 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. In light of the state’s current sentencing regime and the existence of parole procedures focusing on public safety determinations, the Board is not constitutionally required to continue …
Original document
Source: California Supreme Court