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Complicated sentencing laws blamed for long prison stays

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Times Staff Writer

The thousands of incorrect release dates for state prisoners result from a series of decisions by the California Supreme Court and two state appeals courts between May 2005 and January 2006.

Under state law, inmates can receive 50% off their sentences for nonviolent offenses if they behave well or work while in prison and 15% off sentences for violent offenses.

But inmates convicted of both types have been treated as violent offenders, restricting their time off for good behavior to 15%.

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The judges said that policy was wrong. They ruled that on portions of prison terms exclusively related to nonviolent crimes, inmates should receive the more generous rate.

The state received a small reprieve last month, when the state Court of Appeal for the 3rd District said the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was correct in some circumstances to award only 15% credit to inmates serving sentences for nonviolent crimes.

That judgment conflicts with one of the earlier decisions. Prison administrators said they would follow the new ruling and leave existing sentences in place for several hundred affected inmates unless the state Supreme Court says otherwise.

No appeal has been filed.

“The bottom line is that the Legislature’s sentencing and credit laws are so complicated that the courts have difficulty interpreting them and [the prison system] isn’t capable of implementing them,” said Heather MacKay, an Oakland lawyer who won a 2005 appeals court decision overturning one of the state’s methods of calculating sentences.

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