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March 23, 2008

A high-profile (and suspect?) sentencing computation "error"

As detailed in this Los Angeles Times piece, a high-profile California case now involves an interesting new back-end sentencing twist:

California authorities rearrested Sara Jane Olson at noon Saturday, just hours after she was prevented from flying home to Minnesota from Los Angeles, and said she must serve one more year in prison because they miscalculated her release date.  The former member of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army had been paroled Monday from a California women's prison after serving about six years for her role in a 1975 plot to kill Los Angeles police officers by blowing up their patrol cars.

Officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said at a news conference that they had made a mistake in computing the amount of time Olson should serve in a separate case in which she pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for participating in a Sacramento-area bank robbery in which another SLA member killed a customer.  "The department is sensitive to the impact that such an error has had on all involved in this case and sincerely regrets the mistake," Scott Kernan, the agency's chief deputy secretary of adult operations, said at a Saturday afternoon news conference. "The department has launched a full investigation."

Kernan called the case "extremely complicated, given the amount of changes to the sentencing laws that have occurred over the last 30 years."  Olson should have been sentenced to 14 years, not 12, for the two crimes, Kernan said. He said state officials had failed to account for the bank robbery. The earliest possible release date for Olson now is March 17, 2009, he said. At that point, she will have served half of the 14-year term.

Like most California inmates, Olson has earned credit against her sentence for working while in prison. She served on a maintenance crew that swept and cleaned the main yard of the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, according to prison officials....

When news organizations reported Olson's release Friday, law enforcement officials reacted with dismay and raised questions about whether she had been let out too early....  Corrections department officials acknowledged that they began an intensive review of their internal calculations of the sentence after getting questions from the Sacramento County district attorney's office and a local television reporter, but they denied that they had bowed to pressure....

Olson's attorney, Shawn Chapman Holley, said she was outraged by the rearrest and asserted that her client had been illegally arrested and is now being "illegally imprisoned."...   Holley said she planned to file a writ of habeas corpus seeking Olson's release within the next few days.  She scoffed at the suggestion that there had been "a computation error." 

"We received an order from the state parole board more than a month ago informing us that she would be released on March 17," Holley said.  She referred to a decision of the board, saying that on Oct. 12, 2007, the panel had notified a Los Angeles Superior Court judge that "it did not intend to impose" a one-year enhancement that had been challenged by Olson's attorneys. The decision went on to say that Olson's "earliest possible release date has been recalculated to March 17, 2008."

Noting that the decision had been made months ago, Holley said: "The idea that suddenly they discovered an error is untrue. What appears to be the truth is they are bowing to pressure from the Police Protective League or someone else."...

Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen said he found it "hard to imagine" that state officials made a calculation error. The executive director of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice said he had never heard of an instance in which a prisoner was mistakenly released early.

More coverage of a story that may just be starting comes from the AP and from San Francisco Chronicle.  The Chronicle story has more good quotes from law professors:

Santa Clara University Law Professor Gerald Uelmen said the department's error is bewildering. "I can't imagine how they could have blown that one, in such a high-profile case," said Uelmen.

UC Berkeley law Professor Franklin Zimring said the error can be attributed to a sentencing system he called incoherent.  "From the standpoint of keeping the streets safe, she was a candidate for Social Security when she showed up at the beginning of her term," Zimring said. "This apparatus is all extraordinarily arbitrary."  However, he said she probably doesn't have legal grounds to challenge her increased sentence.

March 23, 2008 at 11:55 AM | Permalink


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"The executive director of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice said he had never heard of an instance in which a prisoner was mistakenly released early." Well then let me say the Executive Director is exceptionally uninformed. I can't speak to California's system(s), but it would take all of 5 minutes on Westlaw to find cases discussing inmates who have mistakenly been released early. In the federal system, between old law, new law (Sentencing Reform Act of 1984), VCCLEA of 1994, PLRA of 1996, and potential vacating, reinstatment, etc. of old sentences (not to mention discovery of time that should have been applied as presentence credit, or discovery that time granted as presentence credit should NOT have been awarded), it is unfortunate, but indeed true, that inmates are sometimes mistakenly released before their proper release date.

Posted by: anonymous | Mar 23, 2008 2:44:06 PM

The news story is confusing. She "should" have been sentenced to 14 years instead of 12? I'm assuming the judge made the sentencing determination; all the parole board decides is her eligibility for early release. This is also troubling:

"For the murder conviction, she was given a one-year sentence. For the botched bombings, she was initially sentenced to five years and four months, but that was extended to 12 years after a state prison board designated her a serious offender."

First, I had no idea that a second-degree murder conviction could even carry such a lenient punishment. Second, how was the sentence extended to twelve years by a prison board designation? I wonder if the reporters really understand the law they are talking about. Of course, I could be confused, but my (limited) understanding of California's (incomprehensible) sentencing scheme suggests that, as reported, this was a blatantly illegal enhancement, even under CA law. I thought the entire purpose of the Determinate Sentencing Law was to remove that power from prison officials.

Color me confused.

Posted by: Alec | Mar 23, 2008 11:27:36 PM

It couldn't have happened to a nicer person.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 24, 2008 9:59:08 AM

Alec, under present California law, second-degree murder is punished by 15-to-life. However, this case relates back to the darkest days of lax sentencing, which those who have forgotten history wish to repeat.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Mar 24, 2008 11:27:52 AM

Granted, that would explain the lenient sentence. What it would not explain is the prison board determination. What room is there under California law for the prison board to enhance the sentence beyond the term imposed by the sentencing judge? How does designation as a "serious offender" by prison officials push you into another year of confinement?

Posted by: Alec | Mar 24, 2008 11:48:02 AM

I wonder who Federalist would argue, should remain free as the result of a mistake.

And why do taxpayers have to pay for the power trips of all these people?

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 24, 2008 1:13:29 PM

"However, he said she probably doesn't have legal grounds to challenge her increased sentence."

This is a strange thing the reporter (not the professor) said. I don't think anyone is arguing that the sentence was "increased." But, rather, a release date was miscalculated. Whatever the case, I really can't stand any of the people in this debate because they seem to be arguing without looking at the actual filed documents.

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 24, 2008 2:23:22 PM

My son is the victim of the "Good Ole Boy" system
I see that this type of injustice is not limited to the dirty south. I pray that one day LADY JUSTICE will be respected and regonized. We as a
people must stand our grounds, be united and stomp out the injustices that are laid upoon our people. We must remember our brave warriors who have gone on in the struggle for us to have the right to freedom and justice.

Posted by: Jose McDonald | Sep 20, 2008 2:19:36 PM

I find reading from your blogs give me hope. I am looking for familiar data in the hopes to finding the forms and the "_____ v _____" for a case I am working on unlike Sara Jane Olson I worked and was an inmate at CCWF in Chowchilla. I was immediately releases with no parole after being detained 32 months after my EPRD due to my minute order error(s) time was to run concurrant and everything was ran consecutive. After letting go of all hope and MANY letters to COURTS I recieved a letter from CDC Legal Processing Unit here in Sacramento to my sentancing judge stating an "illegal sentance exists". 32 months is a long time to be locked up with no family on the outside to help you when your case is recieving stolen property and forgery I plead guilty given 16 months on one and 8 months on the other with 273 days credit entered CDC 11/19/99 released 04/02/02.

I Have been reading on TORT, Civil, Civil Rights, etc. I met with NCLS and was given my forms from prison back told to find an attorney and get my county and state moneys owed to me approx. 326,000 I don't care about the money I want a waived to enlist. I tested and my scores were 60.0 and 64.0 Dept. Naval Defense sent me options for MOS offered me officers training-
I know I can not file the wrong papers and short of sitting on the governors steps waiting to see him what the stats are 2 pardons a year does not sound promising, Don't get me wrong I have Cert of Rehab, Writ Hab Corp, Pardon, Clemancy, recall of sentance all filled out then I find another form that might work ...

Thank you DAB and everyone that comments on this and other sites I find facinating the art of law.

Posted by: Martha Chapman | Feb 7, 2009 5:18:37 PM

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