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Jailhouse math: The Conrad Murray case

How can a four-year sentence mean two years behind bars?

October 31, 2013|By The Times editorial board
  • Dr. Conrad Murray is seen listening during his arraignment in Superior Court in Los Angeles, California on Jan. 25 2011. The former personal physician of pop star Michael Jackson was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
Dr. Conrad Murray is seen listening during his arraignment in Superior… (EPA )

Did Dr. Conrad Murray get out early?

The short answer is no. Murray, the doctor who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson, had served nearly two years of a four-year sentence when he was released from Los Angeles County Jail just after midnight Monday. That's only half the sentence, but it's also the full amount of jail time provided for by law.

How is that not getting out early? Since when does four years equal just under two?

It's complicated.

And it's important — not because Murray is any different from most California inmates, but rather because he is so typical — and because his high-profile sentence is a window onto the state's convoluted and misleading sentencing rules.

It would be simplistic to say that those rules alone are what caused the state's current criminal justice crisis, with the prison system under federal receivership and a court order looming to require the release of more than 8,000 convicted felons by late February. The sentencing rules are, rather, one especially vexing result of years of so-called tough-on-crime laws fueled by fear, anti-drug frenzy and political opportunism.

It's not merely that sentences were lengthened during those years; they were lengthened haphazardly, one by one, crime by crime, responding to particular incidents, with no comprehensive examination of the state's sentencing system and with few questions asked about the purpose of prison time. Often the same Legislature that adopted longer jail and prison terms undermined them by requiring more good-conduct credits — and later reversed itself by revoking or limiting credits. The result is a mish-mash that conditions time served not merely on what crime was committed, but when it was committed, when the sentence was handed down, when it was to be served, and where. Courts have had to interpret apparently conflicting sentencing statutes, and trial judges are often unable to figure out how much incarceration time to order without the help of a computer.

All that said, the Murray case is basic, at least on the surface. He got four years for involuntary manslaughter. That's a felony, and although every felony is a serious crime, this one is not designated by statute as one of the "serious" (or "violent" or "sexual") offenses that are ineligible for certain good-conduct credits. Under a state law dating back 30 years, Murray was eligible for one day off for good conduct for every day served. Because his behavior was "exemplary," according to a sheriff's spokesman, Murray's four-year sentence was completed after two years. The jail was not entitled to hold him any longer than that.

Actually, his sentence was up 46 days short of two years, because in addition to the good-conduct credits, he earned what's known as custody credit — a day for every day he was behind bars before or during trial.

But why not just sentence him to two years, then, if that's all he was ever going to serve? Why mislead the public by calling it a four-year sentence?

Again, it's complicated.

For many years California had indeterminate sentences, such as 10 to 25 years. A parole board would review each inmate's record to determine whether he or she had shown sufficient remorse and evidence of rehabilitation, and posed a sufficiently reduced threat to society, to be released on the short end rather than the far end of the term. Good conduct was taken into consideration, as was time spent working in a prison job.

But when the state began its get-tough era in 1977, it declared that the purpose of prison was punishment, not rehabilitation, and it eliminated most indeterminate sentences in favor of set terms like five years or 10 years, with additional time for "enhancements" like using a gun or belonging to a gang. Wardens still needed to provide their inmates an incentive to behave themselves, though, so lawmakers replaced much of the parole board's work with a grant of one day of good-conduct credit for every two days served.

Over the years they upped it to one-for-one for inmates who worked prison jobs, making a four-year sentence into two years behind bars, followed by one to two years under the watchful eye of a state parole agent. From then on, credits waxed and waned depending on the prevailing moods and needs of the time: more incentives and rewards for good conduct and work, fewer credits to punish more egregious crimes (as with the three-strikes law), more credits in order to clear out prison beds and make space for newcomers.

In 2009, the year of Murray's crime, the state was ordered to reduce its prison population, and it took several steps to comply, including another adjustment to good-conduct credits. In-prison work was no longer necessary to get one day off for every day served.

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