California must consider earlier parole for potentially thousands of sex offenders, maybe even those convicted of pimping children, a state judge said Friday.
Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Allen Sumner preliminarily ordered prison officials to rewrite part of the regulations for Proposition 57. The 2016 ballot measure allows consideration of earlier parole for most state prison inmates, but Gov. Jerry Brown promised voters all sex offenders would be excluded.
That goes too far, Sumner said in rejecting Deputy Attorney General Maria Chan's argument that the ballot measure gave state officials broad discretion to exclude any class of offenders whose release might harm public safety.
"If the voters had intended to exclude all registered sex offenders from early parole consideration under Proposition 57, they presumably would have said so," Sumner said.
He said the scope of exclusions should be narrowed to only those now serving time for a violent sex offense. And he said the Corrections Department must better define what falls into that category.
The judge said those who already served their time for a sex crime, even a violent one, and now are imprisoned for a different crime should be eligible for early release.
The language in Proposition 57 "left way too much wiggle room," opening the door to Sumner's ruling, said Mark Zahner, chief executive of the California District Attorneys Association that opposed the initiative. "There's a great danger of truly violent people being released early and people who commit, in this case, sex offenses that involve violence being released early."
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The governor's office declined comment. Corrections spokeswoman Vicky Waters declined comment until after the judge's ruling is final and would not say if the state will appeal. She did not provide an estimate of how many offenders might be affected.
The ruling Friday could allow earlier parole for more than half of the 20,000 sex offenders now serving time, said Janice Bellucci, a Sacramento attorney and president of California Reform Sex Offender Laws. Her lawsuit on behalf of sex offenders argued that the rules conflict with the ballot measure's language and voters' intent in approving Proposition 57.
Bellucci argued the measure requires earlier parole consideration for any sex crime not on the state's narrow list of 23 violent felonies, which includes murder, kidnapping and forcible rape.
That could allow earlier parole for those convicted of raping a drugged or unconscious victim, intimately touching someone who is unlawfully restrained, incest, pimping a minor, indecent exposure and possessing child pornography.
The judge said corrections officials can make the case for excluding those offenders as they rewrite the regulations, but Bellucci said she will sue again if officials go too far.
"Until they figure something else out, they have to consider anybody convicted of a nonviolent offense even if it was a sex offense," Bellucci said outside the courtroom. "We believe we've won a battle but the war continues."
The Chief Probation Officers of California, which supported Proposition 57, still believes the measure excluded sex offenders, Executive Director Karen Pank said.
"We hope the issue will be more fully vetted on appeal," Pank said in a statement.
Opponents of the proposition had argued the language was so broad it could include sex offenders among those eligible for early release. They used the example of Brock Turner as someone who could benefit from a loose interpretation of violent crimes.
The former Stanford swimmer was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman outside a campus fraternity party. He was given a prison sentence of three months, which critics said was far too lenient.
Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky, who imposed Turner's sentence, is now facing a recall election in June over his handling of the case.