It looks like this is indeed the rule in California. Though it seems a bit harsh.
Albert Kingsberry pleads guilty and is given probation for five years, ordered to spend 181 days in jail, and is ordered not to drink or possess any alcoholic beverages during his probation. Four years later, he (stupidly) violates the no-alcoholic-beverages condition. Hope that beer tasted good. Because it's the last one you're going to drink for a while.
So the trial court revokes probation and resentences Kingsberry. To the mid-term of four years in prison.
So Kingsberry does his time. Hopefully he's learned his lesson.
Around three years later, after good time credits are applied, Kingsberry is about to get out of prison. As his release date approaches, the Department of Corrections writes the sentencing judge and says: "Hey, we noticed that you sentenced Kingsberry to four years. But the mid-term for this offense is actually six years. You might have made a mistake. Want him to spend another two years in prison?" At which point the judge says: "Yes." Tacking on two more years to his sentence.
The Court of Appeal concludes that's okay. And based upon its discussion, that does indeed seem to be the law of California. On the theory that the initial sentence was "contrary to law" -- as only three-, six- or eight-year sentences are authorized for this offense -- and "illegal" sentences can be vacated at any time. And even though Kingsberry says "Okay, give me three years: that's a legal sentence," the Court of Appeal says he's not entitled to that, and that the trial judge can go back and give him more time instead.
It seems fine to me to correct sentences based on errors when it's done promptly. So, for example, if weeks (or even months) after the sentence, the trial judge recognized the error, I wouldn't have a real problem with going back and correcting it.
But when no one notices the mistake, when everyone relies on it, when everyone knows that the sentence is X number of years, and when the defendant's entire sentence is almost up, that seems qualitatively different to me. Perhaps not from a legal standpoint, but just as a matter of fairness and settled expectations. The prisoner thinks he's served his time. Paid his debt. Looking forward to an imminent release. Only, after years in prison, to have the trial court say: "Nope. Made a mistake. I'm sentencing you to another two years."
At the very least, as an equitable matter, I might have the trial court at least look at the defendant's current status before resentencing. His disciplinary record. What he's accomplished in prison. To see if it's fair to pull the rug out of the defendant on the eve of his release.
But the Court of Appeal holds -- and, again, this appears to indeed be California law -- that this doesn't have to be done. The trial court can simply say: "I should have known it was six years rather than four. My bad. You pay for it."
I understand that the defendant doesn't get to benefit from the mistake by having his sentence further reduced -- to three years rather than four -- to correct the error. Even though that would indeed solve the "illegal sentence" problem while avoiding the frustration of settled expectations.
Sure, there's a line-drawing problem. How long do you have to be in prison before you can rely on your sentence. A day? A month? A year?
But there's equally a problem with the Court of Appeal's rule -- at least intuitively -- that says (as it clearly does) that even if you've served 30 years in prison, even if you've been a perfect prisoner, and even it's an hour before your release, as long as the trial court decides that it made a mistake and that your 30-year sentence was thus "illegal," it can throw you in the slammer for another decade.
Sometimes I disagree with the appellate court's legal analysis. Not here. It seems spot on. But on a rare occasion or so, that rule nonetheless tugs on me as somewhat unfair. Perhaps not in a "This Cannot be the Law" or "That Violates the Constitution" way, but rather in a "Really? We Can't Do Something Better Than This? way.
This is one of those cases.