The reform of three-strikes sentencing - undertaken by voters last year with the passage of Proposition 36 - made 3,000 to 3,500 lifers eligible for resentencing or release.
But inmates aren't guaranteed an attorney for most post-conviction proceedings. So, at the request of Stanford Law School's Three Strikes Project, which advocates for people serving long third-strike sentences for minor crimes, most California public defenders' offices have been handling resentencing petitions for free. In counties without public defenders, the project connects prisoners with pro bono attorneys.
"Public defenders' offices throughout the state have essentially taken the position that these are our clients," says Harvey Sherman, a deputy public defender in Los Angeles.
Under California's 1994 three-strikes law, anyone with two prior convictions for a serious or violent felony must be sentenced to 25 years to life for any subsequent felony - violent or not. This resulted in enormous sentences for thousands of offenders for crimes like drug possession. The policy contributed to chronic prison overcrowding and added hundreds of millions to corrections spending. Its opponents include former Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, who refused to prosecute nonviolent, non-serious felonies as third "strikes" because he felt the law was unjust. Prop. 36 changed the tide by amending Cal. Penal Code Â§ 667(b)-(i) to require that a third strike be serious or violent to qualify, and by allowing inmates already serving life sentences for nonviolent third strikes to petition for resentencing. (Nonviolent third-strikers serving sentences shorter than life get no such opportunity.)
By early August, 926 lifers statewide had won petitions for release or shorter sentences under Prop. 36 - including 119 helped by Sherman's team. The vast majority - 896 - were released with time served; the other 30 had their sentences reduced, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Hundreds more petitions were pending.
Superior Court Judge WIlliam C. Ryan, who is handling the petitions in Los Angeles County, says the few he has denied with prejudice were filed by prisoners who weren't eligible.
Based on the CDCR's per-inmate cost estimate, the absence of those 896 inmates could save California up to $50 million this fiscal year. The real test of Prop. 36 may come when prosecutors challenge petitions from lifers who qualify for resentencing on the grounds they remain a public threat. But by August the Stanford project hadn't heard of any newly released third-strikers being rearrested.