Last November, Kenneth Corley, a 62-year-old man sentenced to life in prison in San Diego, was released after serving slightly more than 15 years. Corley wasn’t exonerated, nor was he set free on good behavior. Instead, he was the first person to be granted a re-sentencing under the provisions of a new ballot measure—Proposition 36—passed by California voters in its most recent election.
The new guidelines allow prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes who were sentenced under the state’s inflexible “Three Strikes” law—which sent thousands of people to prison for life, some on crimes as petty as shoplifting—to request a retroactive sentence reduction.
Corley, who was serving life for a minor drug possession with intent to sell, immediately qualified for this reduction—and a judge reduced his sentence to time-served.
Thousands of individuals facing third-strike life sentences across California are hoping the courts will grant them the same treatment the judge gave Corley. In Los Angeles County alone, more than 1,000 petitions have flooded the desk of a single superior court judge, William Ryan, asking to be resentenced under Prop 36. Of that number, roughly a dozen so far have been set free under the provision of the new law.
“I think we have about 150 people throughout the state who have come out,” says Susan Champion, a fellow at the Stanford Law School Three Strikes Project, tells TakePart. “We’re chugging along. For the most part, I feel we’ve been pretty successful.”
“California has 58 counties. There are 58 ways that this is being handled. It’s not always clear what the process is.”
The United States is a global outlier in its policy of refusing to automatically grant retroactive sentencing relief. If marijuana were to be legalized tomorrow, for instance, in virtually every other country in the world prisoners convicted of marijuana crimes would be set free. In the U.S., that isn’t automatically the case.
“Sentencing relief creates issues,” says Champion. “Our system has historically not been set up to provide for it.”
Case in point: There are no official, top-down guidelines for how counties in California should carry out the provisions of Proposition 36.
“California has 58 counties,” says Champion. “There are 58 ways that this is being handled. It’s not always clear what the process is.”
Lack of a unified process can be particularly problematic in smaller counties that don’t maintain a public defenders office. Though U.S. law provides the right to an attorney for criminal trials, that right doesn’t extend to prisoners who want to petition the courts for re-sentencing. While public defenders offices across California have voluntarily stepped up to file Prop 36 relief petitions on behalf of inmates, prisoners without access to that service, and who don’t have the resources to hire a private attorney, may well be left in the dark.
Legal activists from Stanford Three Strikes Project and elsewhere have been filling in the gap to prevent unnecessary languishing behind bars.
“It’s important these inmates have good counsel in writing the best possible petitions,” says Champion. “This is a discretionary process. It’s not as simple as filling out a form and saying ‘let me out.’”
Non-violent third strikers have two years to file their petitions, and Champion is confident that every Californian who is eligible for resentencing consideration will get a fair chance. That said, given the volume of people needing legal assistance, delays are likely.
“Obviously, the inmates are very eager to get out,” says Champion. “Another day in prison is another day lost. It’s also not the safest place for people to be. So I understand the impatience. At the same time, we’re absolutely hoping to impress upon inmates the need to get some real legal assistance.”
As the United States slowly weans itself off three decades of tough-on-crime policies, problems like those surfacing in California will become more prevalent. Doing the right thing is more complicated than it seems. That said, the status quo is untenable, and taking action to alleviate the ills of our penological excess is the only hope for a sustainable criminal justice system.
California’s experience may be far from perfect, but hopefully its trial and error can grease the wheels for future national successes in sentencing reform.
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