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January 25, 2013

Important reminder that sentencing reform does not always complete offenders' need for help

This notable new local article, headlined "Newly released California 'three-strikers' face new challenges," provides an intriguing report on the new problems facing certain offenders even after they receive the benefits of sentencing reform. Here are excerpts:

In an unforeseen consequence of easing the state's tough Three Strikes Law, many inmates who have won early release are hitting the streets with up to only $200 in prison "gate money" and the clothes on their backs.

These former lifers are not eligible for parole and thus will not get the guidance and services they need to help them succeed on the outside, such as access to employment opportunities, vocational training and drug rehabilitation.  The lack of oversight and assistance for this first wave of "strikers" alarms both proponents and opponents of the revised Three Strikes Law -- as well as the inmates themselves.

"I feel like the Terminator, showing up in a different time zone completely naked, with nothing," said Greg Wilks, 48, a San Jose man who is poised to be released after serving more than 13 years of a 27-years-to-life sentence for stealing laptops from Cisco, where he secretly lived in a vacant office while working as a temp in shipping and receiving.

Experts say California voters didn't have this situation in mind when they approved Proposition 36 in November by an overwhelming margin.  Under the new law, judges cannot impose a life sentence on most repeat offenders who commit minor crimes. But the law also allows about 3,000 inmates whose last strike was a minor crime to petition for early release or shorter sentences -- as long as a judge finds they don't pose a serious risk to public safety.

Because of the way the state's complex sentencing laws work, many of those strikers have already been locked up longer than their newly calculated terms and usual period of parole, leaving many to fend for themselves without supervision or assistance once they are released.

So far, none of three dozen or so strikers who have been resentenced since November or with the help of the Three Strikes Project before the election has been rearrested.   But some say it's only a matter of time.   "It's pretty clear if you release people early without any supervision, there's an increased ability of them to re-offend," said Mike Reynolds, a Fresno man who helped draft the Three Strikes Law after his daughter was slain in 1992 by two repeat offenders. "It's a very, very dangerous policy."

Supporters of the revised three strikes policy are concerned that a notable uptick in crime -- even minor crimes by strikers -- will make the new law look like an ill-advised failure.

To reduce the risk, the same Stanford University Law School instructors who co-wrote Proposition 36 are now organizing a statewide effort to create re-entry plans for strikers using a combination of public and private services.  They're planning to meet with operators of homeless shelters and innovative transitional programs from around the state, like San Francisco's Delancey Street Foundation, one of the country's leading residential self-help organizations for former substance abusers, ex-convicts, homeless people and others who have hit bottom.

"We want these people to succeed," said Michael Romano, director of Stanford's Three Strikes Project. "We don't want them committing crimes and creating more victims." Proponents say the main reason they didn't foresee the situation is that the rules regarding parole changed significantly -- after officials had already approved the ballot language for Proposition 36....

Three-strikers face greater re-entry challenges than normal inmates, said Joan Petersilia, a Stanford law professor.  About 38 percent receive some level of mental health treatment in prison, compared with 22 percent of the general population.

Romano and his group are hoping to turn to the same donors who funded Proposition 36 for help in creating a statewide re-entry program.  A lot rides on the strikers' success. If they do well -- with the help of people like liberal billionaire George Soros, who donated heavily to Proposition 36 -- advocates could use their success to advance the cause of prison reform. If they fail, it could weaken the national effort to reduce mass incarceration.

January 25, 2013 at 09:32 AM | Permalink

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Interesting(?) side note - if these were federal offenders, they would still be subject to Supervised Release terms, EVEN WITH "overserved" prison terms. Ironically(?), however, the "overserved" prison time WOULD be credited to any Supervised Release VIOLATOR term. And, of course, the sentencing judge could always amend the Suprvised Release Term if s/he felt there was an injustice as a result of the overserved prison time.

Posted by: anon | Jan 26, 2013 9:47:32 AM

"Supporters of the revised three strikes policy are concerned that a notable uptick in crime -- even minor crimes by strikers -- will make the new law look like an ill-advised failure."

Gives away the game, doesn't it? Caring about the criminals, not the nameless victims. Sounds about right for that crowd.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 26, 2013 5:40:09 PM

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