SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Up to 4,000 California inmates serving life sentences for nonviolent convictions will have a chance at parole following the state’s decision to let stand a judge’s ruling saying those prisoners are eligible for freedom under a voter-approved law.
The state will craft new regulations by January to include the repeat offenders in early release provisions. Gov. Jerry Brown also will not appeal a court ruling that the state is illegally excluding the nonviolent career criminals from parole under the 2016 ballot measure he championed to reduce the prison population and encourage rehabilitation.
The state parole board estimates between 3,000 and 4,000 nonviolent third-strikers could be affected, corrections department spokeswoman Vicky Waters told The Associated Press Thursday, “but they would have to go through rigorous public safety screenings and a parole board hearing before any decision is made.”
It’s the second such loss for the Democratic governor, who leaves office days after the new rules are due. Another judge ruled in February that the state must consider earlier parole for potentially thousands of sex offenders. The administration is fighting that ruling, which undercuts repeated promises that Brown made to voters to exclude sex offenders from earlier release.
The three-strikes law was enacted in 1994 and affects people convicted of a serious felony. California law describes the crimes that must be considered a “serious felony” for the purposes of the three-strikes sentencing guidelines.
Prosecutors warned throughout the Prop. 57 campaign that third-strikers would unintentionally fall under the measure’s constitutional amendment, said California District Attorneys Association spokeswoman Jennifer Jacobs.
Brown will not appeal last month’s ruling by a three-judge appellate panel in a Los Angeles County case.
“There is no question that the voters who approved Proposition 57 intended (inmates) serving Three Strikes indeterminate sentences to be eligible for early parole consideration,” the appeals court ruled, adding that, “There is strong evidence the voters who approved Proposition 57 sought to provide relief to nonviolent offenders.”
The administration first argued that they were ineligible because they face indeterminate life sentences and later added that “public safety requires their exclusion.” The appeals court found that officials were “devising an argument ... that is at war” with the measure’s plan language.
Michael Romano, director of the Stanford Three Strikes Project, called the administration’s decision to comply “monumental.”
Among the 4,000 inmates he estimated will be eligible for parole are clients serving life terms for stealing a bicycle, possessing less than half a gram of methamphetamine, stealing two bottles of liquor or shoplifting shampoo.
They are disproportionately Black, disproportionately mentally ill and statistically among the least likely to commit additional crimes, said Romano, whose project represented third-strike inmates in several appeals.
He cited corrections department data on more than 2,200 third strikers who were paroled under a 2012 ballot measure that allowed most inmates serving life terms for relatively minor third strikes to ask courts for shorter terms. Less than 11 percent returned to prison by October 2016, the latest data available, he said, compared to nearly 45 percent of other prisoners.
Mike Reynolds, who spurred the original three-strikes ballot measure after his daughter was killed in 1992, predicted a rise in crime and backlash against Democrats who hold power in California.
“There seems to be a greater need to protect criminals rather than the people who are being victimized by them,” he said.
McGeorge School of Law professor Michael Vitiello expects law enforcement and victims’ groups may challenge earlier releases for sex offenders, but said there is less chance of success for a ballot measure that would again bar third-strikers from parole.
“You couch it in the frame of nonviolent third-strike offenders who have been put away for far too long,” said Vitiello, an expert on the three strikes law. “That comes kind of squarely within the public’s perception that we’ve overdone it.”
Not so with sex offenders, who “evoke horror in the public’s mind,” he said. Even liberal California lawmakers passed a new law responding to a short sentence for former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner for sexually assaulting an intoxicated woman, while voters recalled the sentencing judge.
The public perception unfairly but genuinely lumps one-time sex offenders who are never likely to reoffend in with incorrigible child molesters, he said. Yet allowing shorter terms for less dangerous offenders makes sense “if we want to stop spending so much money on prisons (by) keeping elderly prisoners in prison for their effective life span.” — (AP)