California judges have broad authority in refusing to lighten the sentences of “three-strike” inmates, despite recent ballot measures aimed at reducing the state’s prison population, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday, the Los Angeles Times reports. In a 4-3 decision, the court said judges may freely decline to trim sentences for inmates who qualify for reductions under a 2012 ballot measure intended to reform the state’s tough three-strikes sentencing law. Justice Leondra Kruger, an appointee of Gov. Jerry Brown, joined more conservative justices to reach the result. The decision aimed to resolve questions posed by two ballot measures in recent years to reduce the population of the state’s overburdened prison system.
Proposition 36 allowed three-strike inmates to obtain sentence reductions if their third strike was neither serious nor violent. Judges were entitled to refuse a reduction if they believed the inmate posed an “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.” They could consider the inmate’s history, disciplinary record in prison or other evidence. Two years later, voters passed Proposition 47, another ballot measure to reduce the prison population. That measure created a definition of a safety risk that judges were required to apply. Inmates could be denied a sentence reduction only if they were deemed to pose an unreasonable risk of committing certain crimes, including a killing, a sexually violent offense, child molestation or other serious or violent felony punishable by life in prison or the death penalty. The court majority, led by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, said that definition did not apply to three-strikers, who have been sentenced to 25 years to life for repeated crimes. If it had, Cantil-Sakauye wrote, it would “result in the release of more recidivist serious and/or violent offenders than had been originally contemplated under Proposition 36.”