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November 18, 2012

Effective report on three-strikes reform implementation in San Diego

The San Diego Union-Tribune has this new article headlined "Some prisoners to get out of life sentencing," providing an effective overview on how the initiative-passed reform of California's three-strikes law is going to be implemented in one locality.  Here are excerpts:

Prosecutors, defense lawyers and San Diego Superior Court officials are preparing for about 250 requests from state inmates seeking reductions in their prison sentences after voters approved a ballot measure revising California’s three-strikes law.

Since voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 36 on Nov. 6, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office has received a dozen petitions from state prisoners. The county’s Office of the Public Defender, which will handle the bulk of the cases, estimates 243 state prisoners are eligible for resentencing.

Some, but not all, could end up with a chance at getting out from underneath life sentences in state prison.  Not everyone who asks for a new hearing will qualify for one, lawyers said. And for those that do, a sentence reduction will not be automatic.  Judges will still have the final call on whether to reduce the sentence....

Proposition 36, which is retroactive, modified the law to require a sentence of 25 years to life only if the third strike was a serious or violent felony.  It also allows certain inmates whose third strike was a nonviolent, nonserious felony — writing fraudulent checks, for example — and are serving life terms to seek a new sentencing hearing.

Their sentences could be reduced to that of a two-strike defendant.  So, someone who was convicted of a third-strike crime whose normal sentence was four years, and was sentenced under the original law to 25 years to life, could now end up with a sentence of eight years.

But several provisions under the ballot measure would disqualify some inmates who appear to meet that criteria from getting a new hearing, said Deputy District Attorney Lisa Rodriguez, who is working to implement the new law.  Inmates who are registered sex offenders won’t qualify, Rodriguez said.  Prisoners with convictions for rape or child molesting also won’t qualify for a new hearing, even if their final strike was a nonserious felony, she said.  Certain convictions that involved the use of a firearm or drugs also will disqualify inmates, Rodriguez said.

Those who do qualify for a hearing still have to face a judge, who can refuse to resentence an inmate if it is determined doing so presents an “unreasonable risk to public safety.” That clause will likely be the focus of contested hearings where lawyers for inmates will argue against prosecutors opposed to a lighter sentence.  Rodriguez said inmates’ prior convictions and their record of behavior in prison will be part of those hearings....

The first hearings in San Diego County to reduce sentences under the new law are weeks away, Deputy Public Defender Michael Popkins said.  He estimated about 3,000 inmates in the state could qualify for resentencing. Popkins said Proposition 36 has given inmates and their families new hope. Cases identified by his office involve prisoners sentenced as long as 18 years ago, and as recently as two years ago....

Statewide, the measure passed with a resounding 68.8 percent of the vote.  Voters in San Diego County backed the measure by about the same margin, with 67 percent in favor.

I find notable and valuable the reality that an offeners' "record of behavior in prison" will be part of any resentencing proceedings.   I suspect one under-appreciated benefit of any and all retroactive sentencing reforms — whether achieved via new statutes, new sentencing guidelines or Eighth Amendment litigation — is that they create an enduring incentive for even prisoners serving extremely long terms to behave well while incarcerated and to seek out whatever rehabilitation programs are available to them even if they have only limited prospects for release from prison for many decades.

November 18, 2012 at 11:35 AM | Permalink


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you are right about the importance of behavior in prison, Doug. Whenever I accept a postconviction case based on an Eighth amendment as applied challenge, I strongly tell the client that he should not get any infractions in prison. Whenever I try to negotiate a settlement with the DA, behavior in prison is one of the first thing he asks about.

Was the change in California law to apply to people already in prison, spelled out in the legislation? I'm having a "pipeline" fight in north Carolina, trying to get the change in the habitual felon law to apply to cases in which the def has not been sentenced yet.


Posted by: bruce cunningham | Nov 18, 2012 3:21:20 PM

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