Parole cannot be shortened due to excess incarceration

In re Palmer (2021) 10 Cal.5th 959
In re Lira (2014) 58 Cal.4th 573

Issue: Can a parole period be shifted due to excessive incarceration?

Facts: Palmer, who had been convicted of aggravated kidnapping committed when he was a juvenile and sentenced to indeterminate life sentence, served 30 years and was found suitable for parole by the Board of Parole Hearings and released. He filed a petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus and the Court of Appeal reasoned that Palmer was “entitled to release from all forms of custody, including parole supervision.”
The California Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeal that habeas corpus relief is available to inmates whose continued incarceration has become constitutionally excessive, but who have been denied release by the Board. But Palmer’s continued incarceration at some point becoming constitutionally excessive does not alone did not justify ending his parole under the current statutory scheme. The Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeal.

Even assuming incarceration becomes unconstitutionally disproportionate due to repeated denials of parole, that did not per se justify termination of parole period imposed after petitioner was eventually granted parole.

Parole distinguished from Incarceration

Under post-1977 law, “ ‘Parole is no longer service of the term.’ It is instead a separate period following completion of the term. ‘ “Term” now means the period of actual confinement prior to release on parole.’ ” Accordingly, a finding that an inmate’s prison term is constitutionally excessive no longer has any inherent effect, by itself, on the validity of the separate parole term.

imprisonment and parole both involve custodial forms of punishment, and each constitutes part of the punishment for the underlying crime. Though parole and imprisonment are are not so entangled that a defect in one form of custody necessarily and fatally infects all forms of custody. Imprisonment, for example, may become cruel or unusual because of substandard conditions of confinement. But prisoners who successfully challenge their conditions of confinement would not be entitled to their freedom before their sentences have ended. (Cf. People v. Jackson (1987) 189 Cal.App.3d 113, 120, 234 Cal.Rptr. 293 [“Just as the release of inmates from custody is not an appropriate remedy to established unconstitutional conditions of confinement [citations], we do not believe the proper remedy is judicial reduction of sentence terms”] A constitutional error involving one aspect of punishment does not inevitably and fatally infect all other aspects.

Parole is a “distinct phase” from a term of imprisonment and serves different objectives. The objective of a prison sentence is to protect society, punish offenders, and deter future crime. The primary objective of parole ‘is, through the provision of supervision and counseling, to assist in the parolee’s transition from imprisonment to discharge and reintegration into society.’ When parole works as intended, it is a critical part of the rehabilitation process that should not be categorically discarded simply because an inmate establishes that the preceding period of incarceration became constitutionally disproportionate.
The Legislature has acknowledged parole’s importance and the found “the period immediately following incarceration is critical to successful reintegration of the offender into society and to positive citizenship. It is in the interest of public safety for the state to provide for the supervision of and surveillance of parolees and to provide educational, vocational, family and personal counseling necessary to assist parolees in the transition between imprisonment and discharge.” (Former § 3000, as amended by Stats. 1982, ch. 1406, § 2, p. 5361; see § 3000, subd. (a)(1) These services include medical and psychological treatment, drug and alcohol dependency services, job counseling, and programs that enable the parolee to obtain a general equivalency certificate. (See In re Taylor (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1019, 1030.) Releasing someone into the community without any supervision or supportive services would often be counterproductive.
The California Constitution prohibits punishment that is cruel or unusual. (Cal. Const., art. I, § 17.) Because courts play a pivotal role in giving these words effect, a life-top inmate whose imprisonment has become excessive — but who has been denied parole by the Board — must be able to obtain relief in court by filing a petition for writ of habeas corpus. When a court adjudicates such a petition, it applies our long-standing test to discern whether punishment is cruel or unusual. If a court then finds the inmate’s continued confinement has become excessive, it may order the inmate’s release from prison.
What such release does not guarantee is automatic termination of the inmate’s statutory parole period. Under a statutory scheme that treats parole as a distinct phase of punishment, and in the absence of any persuasive argument from Palmer that his parole term has separately or in combination with his years of imprisonment become constitutionally **796 excessive, his parole remains valid. Because the Court of Appeal erred in ending Palmer’s parole, we reverse the judgment.

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