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Prisoner Rights and Rehabilitation Credits in Jail

Our legal system is not perfect; nor are our jails and prisons.  However, we learn in school at a young age that our legal system recognizes individual rights and was built largely as a response to imperfections in the English system.  Our system has a heavy emphasis on fairness and due process, which leads many, we find, to an almost naïve trust in our laws, judges, attorneys and juries.

The truth is that our system of laws still has many imperfections, but our legislators and judges are generally earnest and motivated to make changes to improve it, when able.

The following case exposes what one person in a county jail perceived as an unfair situation wherein those in prisons enjoyed greater rights to earn custody credits. 

In 2018 in Napa County, Emanuel O. Cuenca was convicted of felony false imprisonment (Penal Code § 236) of his girlfriend and resisting arrest resulting in serious bodily injury to a police officer (Penal Code § 148.10(a)).  The judge sentenced him to three years of formal probation.

While on probation, two years later, Cuenca was charged with assault (Penal Code § 245(a)(4)) and criminal threats (Penal Code § 422), arising out of a physical altercation with another man.  The jury found Cuenca guilty of the lesser-included offense of felony assault (Penal Code § 240).

The trial court judge then revoked his probation and sentenced Cuenca to five years and two months on the two felony charges from his first case and felony assault in his second case.  It is worth noting here for the reader that because these three convictions were not for serious or violent crimes, involved no sentence enhancements and Cuenca was not a registered sex offender, his sentence was served in Napa County Jail under AB 109 (codified at Penal Code §§ 1170(h)(1) and (h)(2), rather than state prison.

About a year later, Cuenca filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus, arguing that the unavailability of rehabilitation programming credits in county jail violated his equal protection rights and the equal protection guarantee of the California and U.S. constitutions.  Put differently, he and other Napa County Jail prisoners were being treated differently than state prison inmates “for no plausible purpose.”

The trial court denied his petition and Cuenca appealed this ruling to the First Appellate District Court in San Francisco.
The First Appellate District began its analysis by noting that both state and county jail inmates may receive custody credits for work performance and good behavior under Penal Code §§ 2931, 2933 (“good time, work time” for state prison inmates) and 4019 (“good time, work time” for county jail inmates).  However, state prison inmates may receive additional “program credit reductions” for “successfully complet[ing] specific program performance objectives for approved rehabilitative programming.”  Penal Code § 2933.05(a).

Comparable credits are not available for county jail inmates in Napa County.  However, a county sheriff may offer such credits for jail inmates, but he or she is not required to do so as the CDCR is, and in fact, the county sheriff may instead “elect to participate in a program credit reduction program,” but Napa County has not elected to do this.  Napa explained that it does not offer program credits because it does not have the resources available to provide the rehabilitative programs due to limited space in the jails to use as a classroom or meeting room.

As to the equal protection claim, Cuenca must show that the state of California has adopted a classification that affects two or more similarly situated groups in an unequal manner for purposes of the law challenged.  People v. Guzman (2005) 35 Cal. 4th 577, 591. 

If the groups are similarly situated, but treated in an unequal manner, “we apply different levels of scrutiny to different types of classifications.”  People v. Wilkinson (2004) 33 Cal. 4th 821, 836.  “At a minimum, a statutory classification must be rationally related to a legitimate governmental purpose [citations].  Classifications based on race or national origin . . . and classifications affecting fundamental rights . . . are given the most exacting scrutiny.  Between these extremes of rational basis review and strict scrutiny lies a level of intermediate scrutiny, which generally has been applied to discriminatory classifications based on sex or illegitimacy.” [citations]

Here, the First Appellate District found that the rights at issue did not concern a suspect class or a fundamental right.  Cuenca’s access to early release on a date earlier than full service of his term of imprisonment is not a right but a privilege. 

Therefore, rational basis review is the proper, if any, but here, the First Appellate District found that, as a threshold matter, the two groups of inmates were not similarly situated.  There is far more different between county jail inmates and state prison inmates than the location of their incarceration.  Inmates subject to state prison present a higher public safety risk than county jail inmates.

Moreover, even if the court were to apply rational basis review, the unequal treatment would pass muster because a county jail certainly may have a rational basis for not offering such programs and the credits for completing the classes.  Here, the county jail had limited resources and the state could focus its programming efforts on those inmates who posed a higher public safety risk under reentry into society.

So, Cuenca’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus was also denied by the appellate district court. 

We offer this article to let the reader know why there are certain differences between county jail and state prison and this is certainly one.  There is a rational reason why one is offered in state prison and it is not offered in county jail.

For more information about rehabilitation credits and Prop 57, please click on the following articles:
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