In summary

Smiley Martin, one of the suspects in the Sacramento shooting, received a plea deal that allowed him to collect good conduct credits at a faster rate than someone convicted of a violent offense. His case illuminates the complex workings of California’s criminal justice system and the contentious political debate.

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The story behind the April 3 Sacramento shooting that left six dead and 12 injured keeps getting more complicated — illuminating the complex workings of California’s criminal justice system and raising questions about the effectiveness of both Democratic and Republican proposals to reduce gun violence. 

Much of the attention on the case has focused on Smiley Martin, one of four suspects named by police so far in connection with what police say was a gang shootout. Martin, 27, who was injured in the shootout, has been charged with illegal possession of a firearm and a machine gun.

But announcing the latest suspect on April 12, Sacramento police said that “evidence indicates” that Martin, his brother Dandrae and the new suspect were among at least five shooters “involved in the gunfight.” And on May 3, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert announced that both Smiley Martin and his brother have been charged with three counts of murder.

Republicans have blamed criminal justice reforms — including Proposition 57, which voters passed in 2016 — for permitting Martin to spend just four years in prison despite a 10-year sentence. 

Yet Martin’s sentence was the result of a 2018 plea deal struck with Schubert’s office. Schubert, a Republican-turned-independent, is one of the candidates in the June 7 primary challenging Democratic Attorney General Rob Bonta on a tough-on-crime platform. 

Under the terms of the plea agreement, two charges prosecutors filed against Martin were dismissed, including kidnapping and intimidation of a witness or victim, court documents show. That resulted in Martin being convicted of offenses defined as “nonviolent” under California penal code: domestic violence and assault likely to cause great bodily injury.

And although prosecutors originally charged Martin with assault with a deadly weapon other than a firearm — in this case, a belt — Martin instead pleaded no contest to assault likely to produce great bodily injury, court documents show. 

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He received a five-year prison term for those two felonies, which was doubled to 10 years due to a prior conviction for robbery, according to the district attorney’s office. The 10-year sentence was by far the longest Martin, who has a long rap sheet, had ever received, according to the Sacramento Bee.

But because Martin was convicted as a nonviolent offender, he was eligible under Prop. 57 to collect good conduct credits at a faster rate than someone convicted of a violent offense — a rate that further accelerated during the pandemic due to controversial emergency rules adopted by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Martin was also eligible for a parole consideration process that Prop. 57 established for certain nonviolent offenders.  

Had Martin been convicted of kidnapping, which California penal code defines as a violent felony, he would not have been able to earn good conduct credits at such a high rate. 

“We are keenly aware of the obstacles presented in the prosecution of domestic violence cases, including the willingness of the victim to participate in the criminal justice process,” Rod Norgaard, Sacramento County chief deputy district attorney, said in a statement to CalMatters. “Our sole objective in this case was to hold Mr. Martin accountable for his conduct with the evidence available to us. The resolution of the case for ten years in state prison served that objective.”

Martin ended up spending a little more than four years in state prison, from January 2018 to February 2022, a state corrections spokesperson said. 

The spokesperson explained why: 

  • A judge awarded Martin 508 days of pre-sentencing credits, double the time he spent in jail waiting for his case to be adjudicated, court records show. 
  • While in prison, Martin received “a variety of additional post-sentencing credits,” which inmates not sentenced to death or life without parole can earn for participating in rehabilitation or educational programs.  
  • Although Martin was eligible for parole consideration, the Board of Parole Hearings denied his release. 
  • Martin served the remaining time on his sentence and was released to the supervision of the Sacramento County Probation Department in February. 

Elise Vondrak, a supervising probation officer, said documents pertaining to Martin’s probation are not public records under state law.

Martin’s brief stint in prison has also spotlighted the emergency rules the corrections department adopted during the pandemic to increase good conduct credit earning rates for inmates not sentenced to death or life without parole. The department, part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration, is now seeking to make those rules permanent. 

“California has made credit-earning opportunities accessible to incarcerated individuals for many decades, and increasing the rate of credit earning in furtherance of Proposition 57 — which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2016 — provides a compelling reason for individuals to engage in positive programming while serving their time,” Vicky Waters, special advisor and assistant secretary of communications for the state corrections department, said in a statement to CalMatters. 

“This can lead to improved behavior and instilling pro-social and vocational/educational skills to assist people in finding success, and avoiding recidivism, after incarceration.”

Schubert is one of 44 district attorneys suing the Newsom administration over the proposed rule changes, which she says could endanger the public.  

The state prison system is accepting public comment through today on its plan to make those rules permanent, and will hold a public hearing on Thursday.

But the plea deal struck with Schubert’s office, and the Prop. 57 changes implemented by the Newsom administration, only explain part of why Martin spent just four years in prison. 

Another key part: the constraints of California’s penal code. But even as some Democratic lawmakers embrace tougher-on-crime rhetoric, they appear reluctant to toughen the penal code itself. 

Indeed, the state recently adopted changes to the penal code that could eventually result in the resentencing and release of thousands of incarcerated Californians, and prevent more people from being sentenced to prison in the first place, as CalMatters’ Byrhonda Lyons has reported.

And last week, a legislative committee shot down a bill proposed by GOP state Sen. Shannon Grove of Bakersfield to amend the penal code by defining human trafficking as a serious and violent felony.

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Emily Hoeven wrote the daily WhatMatters newsletter for three years at CalMatters . Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco...