SAN FRANCISCO -- The state's high court ruled Monday that a 2008 ballot measure increasing the time period between parole hearings for inmates serving life sentences applies to all so-called "lifers," not just those sentenced after the law passed.
The unanimous seven-member court said Monday that "Marsy's Law" applies to all because it wasn't intended to prolong punishment or change any inmate's sentence.
"Marsy's Law" expanded the legal rights of crime victims, including notifying them of all court proceedings and parole hearings. The law also intended to spare victims from having to trek to parole hearings as often as every year and imposed minimum lengths of seven, 10 and even 15 years between parole hearings for certain prisoners serving life sentences with the chance of parole.
Before Marsy's law, the maximum length between parole hearings was five years for murder and two years for all other convictions.
The law was named after Marsy Nicholas, who was stalked and killed by a former boyfriend in 1983. Her brother Henry Nicholas, the co-founder of Broadcom Corp., contributed millions to the Proposition 9 campaign after organizing a group of legal scholars, prosecutors and others including former California Gov. Pete Wilson to draft the proposition. Nicholas is now on a quest to amend the U.S. Constitution to include victims' rights language.
The ruling Monday was prompted by a lawsuit filed by inmate Michael Vicks, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1983 after being convicted of 16 violent felonies including kidnapping and sexual assault.
Vicks argued that he was unfairly subjected to the new parole hearing schedule in violation of state and federal bars on "ipso facto" laws. Those prohibited laws change punishment for behavior after conviction, and Vicks argued the new parole hearing schedule guaranteed him a longer sentence than before Marsy's Law passed.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, writing for the court, overturned to decisions of two lower courts agreeing with Vicks. Cantil-Sakauye said Vicks provided no evidence that "Marsy's Law" has kept him or others locked up longer than he otherwise would have been. She said the longer periods between parole hearings was meant to spare crime victims from having to attend hearings that were almost certainly going to result in a denial. She said the law did nothing to change the qualifications for parole, and that prisoners were free to petition for earlier parole dates.
"Although multiple changes to the parole scheme contribute to longer periods between hearings, the changes have no cumulative effect that would create a significant risk of prolonged incarceration," she wrote.