Local News

Friday, Nov 09 2012 11:14 PM

Kern County readies for 'third strike' resentencings

BY REBECCA KHEEL Californian staff writer rkheel@bakersfield.com

Now that California voters have decided the state's Three Strikes law will be retooled, Kern County's Public Defender's and District Attorney's offices are preparing for the resentencings mandated by the change in the law.

The Public Defender's office is gearing up to represent hundreds of clients who it says do not deserve to have been imprisoned for 25 years to life.

"No one is in favor of crime," said Konrad Moore, interim public defender. "These people are still going to get two times the normal prison sentence."

But the District Attorney's office is worried crime rates will rise and that it will not be able to argue to keep third strikers in prison.

In Kern County, 405 people are in prison for a third strike, according to June data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. More than 100 of those will be eligible for resentencing.

For example, 83 people from Kern County are imprisoned for drug possession and 21 for petty theft with a prior conviction, according to the CDCR data. Most people from both of those groups will probably be eligible for resentencing, Moore said.

On Tuesday, Californians approved Proposition 36, which changes Three Strikes law. Previously, a person who was twice convicted of a violent or serious felony was given a minimum sentence of 25 years to life for a third felony conviction of any type. Now, someone with two strikes who commits a nonserious or nonviolent felony will only be sentenced to twice the usual length for that new crime.

And some in prison now under Three Strikes who would not have received a life sentence under the new law are eligible to apply for resentencing. But anyone with certain serious, violent prior convictions like rape, murder or child molestation will still be subject to a 25-to-life sentence no matter what the third strike is.

Statewide, about 9,000 inmates in California state prisons are third strikers. About 3,000 of those will be eligible for resentencing.

Moore's office has already received several dozen letters from inmates and family members asking if they are eligible for resentencing. For example, he received one letter from a family member asking if his brother, who's been in prison for about 10 years for possession of less than one gram of heroin, will be able to resentenced.

The office is working to develop an official list of anyone who is eligible. If anyone on the list does not contact the office, the office will seek them out, Moore said.

It's going to take time for the resentencings to actually begin, though, he said. Moore's assigned one of his senior attorneys to find an efficient and cost-effective way to handle the resentencings and figure out a process. Until that is worked out, the hearings will not move forward.

"Our department is driven by two things," Moore said. "Caring for our clients and consideration for taxpayer money."

Moore also predicts Kern County will be proportionately slammed by more resentencings than other counties because it has a higher percentage of third strikers than elsewhere. For example, San Francisco County has 44 third strikers, and Orange County has 392.

Part of the reason for that is because judges and prosecutors in Kern County did not use their discretion to get rid of strikes or not sentence people to third strikes as often as in some other counties, Moore said. One of the arguments against changing the three strikes law was that judges and prosecutors have the ability to do that.

"Your sentence should not depend on what county you're convicted in, especially when you're dealing with something as draconian as a life sentence," Moore said.

But Scott Spielman, assistant district attorney, warned that reducing the sentences of third strikers will lead to an increase in crime. Just like realignment correlated with an increase in arrests and filings of criminal charges, so too will not keeping third strikers locked up for life, the prosecutor said.

"These people have clearly demonstrated they're career or habitual criminals," he said. "My hope would be that they've outgrown it or chose a different lifestyle."

People whose third crime was nonserious or nonviolent will still not be resentenced if the District Attorney's office proves and the judge agrees that they are an "unreasonable risk of danger to public safety," in the words of the law.

To try to show that, the office will pull old files and try to get any prison records to see if any incidents occurred while the third strikers were incarcerated. But it's going to be difficult to prove, Spielman said, even though that's why the criminals were locked up and Three Strikes was created in the first place.

Changing Three Strikes would have been fine, Spielman said, if there was a better system in place to supervise the inmates once they are released. But other than parole, third strikers will have little supervision, he said.

"The road we go down in California, our solution to the high cost of housing inmates, is simply to release them," he said. "What do you think thousands of criminals are going to do? They're going to commit more crimes."

Vanessa Shadden, whose husband is serving out a third-strike sentence for dissuading a witness, said she feels blessed that Proposition 36 passed. She believes her husband is eligible to be resentenced, although she hasn't had that confirmed by a lawyer yet.

Shadden called the Public Defender's office, where a secretary took her husband's information and told her someone in the office will contact him. Right now, she's just waiting for the long process to begin to get her husband home.

"We have a lot to catch up on," she said. "It's not only about me and him. We've had 18 years together. I want him to get back to his children. He's been away from them for too long."

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