In In re Mohammad, the Supreme Court today validates regulations narrowly interpreting a 2016 initiative that allows early parole consideration for nonviolent felons. Proposition 57 amended the state constitution to provide, “Any person convicted of a nonviolent felony offense and sentenced to state prison shall be eligible for parole consideration after completing the full term for his or her primary offense.” The now-approved regulations make early parole off limits to an inmate who is incarcerated for both nonviolent and violent felonies.
The court’s opinion is by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. Quoted a year ago as saying, “I haven’t seen clear language in an initiative, ever” (see here), the Chief Justice writes that “the constitutional text is ambiguous” regarding the case before the court, but gives deference to the approach of the regulations’ drafter — the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation — as “reasonably necessary to effectuate the purpose of Proposition 57.”
The opinion says that requiring early parole consideration for prisoners convicted of nonviolent felonies regardless of whether they’ve also been convicted of violent felonies “is a plausible reading” of Prop. 57, but “language that seems plain when considered in isolation may be ambiguous when examined within the context of the scheme it implements.”
Justice Goodwin Liu writes a concurring opinion for himself and Justice Leondra Kruger, who both signed the court’s opinion. He says there are a number of “[l]urking” questions that are not ripe for decision in the present case, including whether early parole consideration is available to an inmate who is serving a nonviolent felony sentence after having completed serving a sentence for a violent felony.
The court reverses the published opinion of the Second District, Division Five, Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court notes there are four grant-and-hold published opinions that disagreed with Division Five: 2021 decisions by the Fourth District, Division One; the Sixth District; the Fourth District, Division Three; and the Third District. It also disapproves 2021 opinions by the Fourth District, Division One, and the Third District.