- Associated Press - Thursday, March 5, 2015

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that terminally ill inmates can appeal judicial denials of compassionate early release from their prison sentences.

The high court reversed a lower court’s ruling. The lower court had held that only the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation could appeal a judge’s denial of early release for health reasons. The unanimous Supreme Court ruled that the “substantial rights” of inmates are affected by adverse rulings, and they should be allowed to appeal.

A few dozen inmates were recommended for a release annually between 1991 and 2009, according to statistics filed with the court by the prisoner advocacy group Justice Now. In an effort to ease prison overcrowding and cut costs, state lawmakers have made more incapacitated and ill inmates eligible for early release.

The ruling was made in the case of James Alden Loper, a San Diego man sentenced to six years in prison for insurance fraud in 2011. The next year, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation recommended he be released because of health reasons, including incurable heart disease.

But a San Diego judge refused to let the agency release Loper after a prison doctor testified that it was unclear how long Loper had left to live. The doctor said Loper could die at any moment or live for many months, but that his health problems were incurable and would ultimately kill him.

The judge ruled that Loper didn’t qualify for early release because the inmate couldn’t conclusively show he had less than six months to live.

The Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the Court of Appeal to reconsider the judge’s decision.

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