Judges have broad authority in refusing to lighten the sentences of "three-strike" inmates, despite recent ballot measures aimed at reducing the state's prison population, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday.
In a 4-3 decision, the court said judges may freely decline to trim sentences for inmates who qualify for reductions under a 2012 ballot measure intended to reform the state's tough three-strikes sentencing law.
Justice Leondra R. Kruger, an appointee of Gov. Jerry Brown, joined the more conservative justices to reach the result.
The decision aimed to resolve questions posed by two ballot measures in recent years to reduce the population of the state's overburdened prison system.
Proposition 36 allowed three-strike inmates to obtain sentence reductions if their third strike was neither serious nor violent.
Judges were entitled to refuse a reduction if they believed the inmate posed an "unreasonable risk of danger to public safety." They could consider the inmate's history, disciplinary record in prison or other evidence.
Two years later, voters passed another ballot measure to reduce the prison population. That measure, Proposition 47, created a definition of a safety risk that judges were required to apply.
Inmates could be denied a sentence reduction only if they were deemed to pose an unreasonable risk of committing certain crimes, including a killing, a sexually violent offense, child molestation or other serious or violent felony punishable by life in prison or the death penalty.
The court majority, led by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, said Monday that definition did not apply to three-strikers, who have been sentenced to 25 years to life for repeated crimes.
If it had, Cantil-Sakauye wrote, it would "result in the release of more recidivist serious and/or violent offenders than had been originally contemplated under Proposition 36."
Cantil-Sakauye noted that none of the ballot materials for Proposition 47 mentioned that it would affect three-strike prisoners. Proposition 47 allowed judges to reduce some nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors.
"Based on the analysis and summary they prepared, there is no indication that the Legislative Analyst or the Attorney General were even aware that the measure might amend the resentencing criteria governing the Three Strikes Reform Act," the chief justice wrote.
The ruling came in appeals filed by David J. Valencia and Clifford Paul Chaney, who were both sentenced to 25 years to life under the three strikes law and both eligible for reduced terms under Proposition 36.
Valencia's criminal history included kidnapping, making criminal threats and striking his wife. Chaney's record included armed robbery and three convictions for driving under the influence.
A Tuolumne County judge refused to reduce Valencia's sentence, calling him a risk to public safety, particularly to women.
An Amador County judge refused Chaney's resentencing application, saying Chaney was likely to drive again while intoxicated.
Both inmates argued that the judges should have based their decisions on the more restrictive definition of safety risk.
Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar and Brown's two other appointees — Justices Goodwin Liu and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar — noted in dissents that Proposition 47 clearly stated that the definition would apply throughout the criminal code.
The more restrictive definition advanced "the goal of concentrating state corrections spending on the most dangerous offenders," Cuéllar wrote, and gave three-strike prisoners only "a marginally stronger basis" for winning sentence reductions.
Liu said the court majority had concluded "that the drafters of Proposition 47 pulled a fast one on an uninformed public."
But it is also possible that voters, unhappy about the huge amounts of money being spent on prisons, "knew exactly what they were doing," Liu wrote.
Monday's ruling "disserves the initiative process, the inmates who are now its beneficiaries, and the judicial role itself," he said.
3:10 p.m.: This article was updated to include details of the safety risks spelled out in Proposition 47 that judges had been required to apply in deciding whether to reduce sentences for three-strike inmates.