Non-forcible sex-crimes offenders are eligible for early parole, California Supreme Court rules

A voter-approved initiative that allowed early parole consideration for prisoners convicted of nonviolent felonies applies to thousands of inmates serving time for non-forcible sex crimes such as pimping and possessing child pornography, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.

Proposition 57, sponsored by then-Gov. Jerry Brown and approved by 64% of the voters in November 2016, allowed the state Board of Parole Hearings to consider releasing prisoners after they had completed their sentences for crimes that the law classified as nonviolent. Previous laws had required them to spend additional years, sometimes decades, behind bars for such factors as prior convictions, gang membership and gun possession before being considered for parole.

Prop. 57 was one of several recent ballot measures aimed at reducing the population of California’s overcrowded prisons, under federal court orders, and redirecting funds from imprisonment to rehabilitation and social programs.

But the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which runs the prisons and oversees the parole board, has prohibited the board from considering early release for inmates serving time for a conviction that required registration as a sex offender. Those crimes include indecent exposure and consensual sex with a minor as well as rape and sex trafficking. The department said those inmates pose a risk of committing further sex offenses if released.

On Monday, the state’s high court ruled unanimously that the department’s regulations were unauthorized by Prop. 57. As of 2018, the state rules barred about 4,400 inmates from being considered for early parole.

The ballot measure declared that “inmates convicted of nonviolent felony offenses ‘shall be eligible’ for parole consideration,” Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in the 7-0 ruling. That means they must be considered for release after the sentence for their current crime, she said, unless it was a violent offense — and even if they had been convicted of violent crimes in the past.

It does not mean that sex offenders or any other inmates are entitled to parole before completing their full sentences, Cantil-Sakauye said. She noted that the corrections department has required parole boards to consider anything in an inmate’s record, including sex offenses, in deciding whether a prisoner’s release would pose a danger to the public.

But the language of the ballot measure contained “no indication that the voters intended to allow the department to create a wholesale exclusion from parole consideration based on an inmate’s sex offense convictions when the inmate was convicted of a nonviolent felony,” the chief justice said.

She acknowledged that the ballot arguments in favor of Prop. 57 said it would not change “the federal court order that excludes sex offenders … from parole.” But the federal court order was on a different subject, ballot arguments are not legally binding, and “we presume that the voters relied on the text of the measure,” Cantil-Sakauye said.

The ruling allows a parole hearing for Gregory Gadlin, a Los Angeles County man who had served 25 years for assault — a conviction the law did not classify as violent — and had sex crimes on his record that would add another 10 years to his sentence.

“Society will be safe,” said Janet Bellucci, executive director of the Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws, who represented Gadlin. She noted that inmates granted parole are monitored electronically 24 hours a day for as long as 20 years, undergo counseling and rehabilitation programs, and are returned to prison if they violate parole terms.

Corrections department spokeswoman Dana Simas had a similar assessment. She said the ruling “does not mean that sex offenders will automatically be released to the community,” but only that they can appear before the parole board.

The board, Simas said, “will assess their case factors individually, including whether they continue to propose a public safety risk.”

The case is In re Gadlin, S254599.

Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @BobEgelko

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