A 2010 California prison rule change that eliminated “good-time credits” for suspected prison-gang members held in high security housing units has been declared unconstitutional by a federal appeals court.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the rule change eliminating credits for good behavior violated the Ex Post Facto Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits retroactively changing the punishment after the crime was committed.
California encourages good behavior among prisoners by good-conduct credits to reduce sentences, generally one-for-one, meaning one day of good conduct earns a one-day reduction in sentence.
Until 2010, prison gang members held in SecurityHousing Units, (SHU) earned credits at a three-for-one rate, that is three days of good conduct entitled the prisoner to one day reduction in sentence.
In 2010, California lawmakers modified the penal code to eliminate good time credits for inmates held in the SHU, regardless of their conduct.
“Altering a prisoner’s ability to earn credits affects the length of his prison term and therefore affects the measure of punishment attached to the original crime,” wrote Judge Carlos Bea for the panel.
Antonio Hinojosa pleaded guilty in 2003 to robbery with a firearm and participation in a street gang. He was sentenced to 16 years and by 2009 was transferred to the SHU at Corcoran state prison.
The prisons allow only two ways to end prison-gang affiliation, either going “inactive” in gang activities for six years or by debriefing, often referred to as “snitching” by other inmates. The gang member must provide staff with details about the gang’s activities and structure as well as write an autobiography of gang involvement and then be observed for up to a year in the SHU.
By either method, release from the SHU is discretionary.
Hinojosa had been able to earn good time credits from 2003 to 2009 and then at a slower rate while in the SHU until 2010, when he no longer gained credits.
Hinojosa filed a habeas petition challenging the constitutionality of the change. He was rejected in the state court he appealed all the way to the California Supreme Court and was rejected without formal opinions.
He took the claim to the federal court.
Hinojosa’s gang-related misconduct occurred after, and is separate from, his other crimes, Bea said. “But in punishing Hinojosa for his imprison gang-related misconduct, the state has effectively increased his prison sentence for his underlying crimes,” Bea wrote.
He added the court is not preventing the state from punishing in-prison misconduct, but it cannot use such a statute to retroactively increase prison time.
He was joined by Judges Ferdinand Fernandez and Barry Fisher.
Case: Hinojosa v. Davey, No. 13-56012