The California Supreme Court unanimously held Thursday that habeas corpus relief is available to inmates whose continued incarceration has become constitutionally excessive but who have been denied release by a parole board. However, the court held, excessive incarceration didn’t justify ending a habeas petitioner’s parole supervision altogether.

The petitioner in this case, William Palmer II, asserted that his continued incarceration for a crime he committed in 1988, when he was 17 years old, had become grossly disproportionate under the California and U.S. Constitutions. Palmer claimed that he’d had 10 parole suitability hearings between 1996 and 2015 but had been denied parole each time.

Before an appeals court could adjudicate Palmer’s petition, he was released on parole for a five-year period. The appeals court granted Palmer habeas relief, determining that his petition wasn’t moot because he remained constructively in custody while on parole.

The court then reasoned that because Palmer’s incarceration had become constitutionally excessive before his release on parole, he was “entitled to be freed from all custody, actual or constructive,” and it ordered Palmer released from parole supervision.

The California Supreme Court granted review on its own motion to decide whether inmates can challenge their incarceration as constitutionally excessive when they’re repeatedly denied parole, and what remedy is available in such a situation.

As an amicus curiae in the case, the California District Attorneys Association argued that inmates shouldn’t be allowed to argue that their incarceration has become constitutionally excessive unless a parole board finds that they no longer present a current threat to public safety. The association contended that absent such a finding, the appeals court’s decision in Palmer’s case authorizes “a back-door challenge” to lawful parole denials.

Writing for the high court, Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar held that a parole denial doesn’t prevent inmates serving indeterminate terms from challenging their continued incarceration as cruel and unusual under the California Constitution.

“Such challenges are neither novel nor improper, especially where (as here) the Board is not ever required, when making its parole decisions, to consider whether an inmate’s punishment has become constitutionally excessive,” Cuéllar wrote.

Palmer’s claim can’t be fairly characterized as a “new” means of challenging his continued incarceration, Cuéllar wrote, nor did it depend on opening a “back-door” — because the parole board isn’t required to consider whether an inmate’s life term has become constitutionally excessive if the inmate hasn’t been found suitable for parole, “Palmer’s claim can readily enter through the courthouse front door.”

However, the court held that the appeals court shouldn’t have ended Palmer’s parole supervision when it granted his habeas petition, reasoning that although parole and imprisonment “are often tethered, they are not so entangled that a defect in one form of custody necessarily and fatally infects all forms of custody.”

“Under a statutory scheme that treats parole as a distinct phase of punishment, and in the absence of any persuasive argument from Palmer that his parole term has separately or in combination with his years of imprisonment become constitutionally excessive, his parole remains valid,” the court held.

Justice Goodwin Liu wrote a separate concurrence to state that he would make clear that a finding of excessive incarceration necessarily entails that a parolee can’t be reincarcerated for a parole violation.

Counsel for the parties could not be immediately reached for comment on the ruling.

The case is In re Palmer, case number S256149, in the Supreme Court of California.

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