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California Court of Appeal: Youth Offender Parole Statute Trumps Consecutive Prison Term Statute

by Christopher Zoukis

The Court of Appeal of California, Second Appellate District, ruled that a statute granting prisoners who were convicted as youth offenders improved parole eligibility possibilities supersedes a different statute that requires prisoners convicted and sentenced for in-prison crimes to serve their new sentence consecutively. The June 6, 2018, opinion ordered the release of a prisoner who was granted parole as a youth offender, but not released because of a consecutive sentence imposed for in-prison crimes.

In 1979, when he was 19 years old, Ronald Jenson was convicted of first-degree felony murder. He was sentenced to 25 years to life, plus two years. While serving his prison term, Jenson committed three additional crimes: prison escape, possession of a weapon, and assault with a deadly weapon on a peace officer. For those crimes, all of which were committed prior to 1990, Jenson was given three additional consecutive prison terms, totaling five years.

Jenson was denied parole five times between 1997 and 2014. In 2016, he was given a youth offender parole hearing, pursuant to the newly enacted Penal Code § 3051. The Board of Parole Hearings (“Board”) recommended parole, but the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) refused to release Jenson. The CDCR took the position that, regardless of his parole, Jenson had to serve five more years — the five consecutive years for his in-prison crimes.

Jenson sought a writ of habeas corpus from the superior court, which was denied. He appealed, and the Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, reversed and ordered his immediate release.

The issue presented in Jenson’s case involved the application of two statutes, both of which governed his situation. Section 3051 provides enhanced parole eligibility for youth offenders and directs the immediate release of paroled youth offenders. Section 1170.1(c) requires that prisoners sentenced to a consecutive term for an in-prison crime serve the additional time after they would have been otherwise released. In the parole context, § 1170.1 says the consecutive term begins on the date the prisoner is found suitable for parole. Such terms are known as Thompson terms.

The Court was faced with two statutes that seemed to command mutually exclusive outcomes: § 3051 says Jenson must be released immediately, but § 1170.1 says he must not be released immediately, but instead must serve his consecutive sentence for the in-prison crimes.

Interpreting both statutes in an effort to make them work together turned out to be impossible, so the Court declared § 3051 irreconcilably in conflict with § 1170.1. When two statutes cannot be reconciled, the Court said that “later enactments supersede earlier ones, and more specific provisions take precedence over the more general.”

Here, § 3051 was adopted much later than 1170.1 and specifically addressed parole eligibility for youth offenders. Because § 3051 is both more recent and more specific, it trumps § 1170.1. Moreover, the Court’s ruling honored the stated legislative goal of § 3051: “to establish a parole eligibility mechanism that provides a person serving a sentence for crimes that he or she committed as a juvenile the opportunity to obtain release when he or she has shown that he or she has been rehabilitated and gained maturity.”

“Requiring a youth offender like Jenson who has met the stringent benchmarks required for rehabilitation to remain incarcerated to serve a Thompson term turns § 3051 into a Pyrrhic victory: Jenson is suitable for release having demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation, but he must remain in prison,” said the Court.

Accordingly, the Court ordered his immediate release on parole, and “the days of incarceration he has served” in contravention of this ruling “shall be deducted from his parole period.” See: In re Jenson, 24 Cal. App. 5th 266 (2018). 

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