California 3rd Strike Inmates Receive Sentence Review

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 14, 2013

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A California judge, Honorable William Ryan, has begun the process of reviewing over 1,000 petitions from prisoners serving life sentences for committing a 3rd strike felony who are requesting a reduced sentence.  The reviews come only three months after California voters approved Proposition 36, which allows for non-serious and non-violent offenders who received a life sentence due to the 3rd strike law to petition the court for a reduction in punishment.  Judges review each case, and may grant inmate release if the ex-offender does not pose further threat to the people of California.

Types of Cases Reviewed

Proposition 36 is designed to allow inmates whose 3rd offense was a relatively minor offense to escape a harsh life in prison sentence.  So far Judge Ryan has granted 5 request, releasing former offenders back into society after determining that they are not a threat to reoffend.  Among the inmates released recently are a 74-year-old who has served more than 15 years for possession of $10 of drugs, and an 81-year-old who has served 17 years after stealing packs of cigarettes.  Both men had two offenses, some dating back several years prior to their third offense, and received life sentences under the third strike law.

Proposition 36 also modifies the 3rd strike law to impose a life sentence only when the new felony conviction is considered “serious or violent,” reserving the strict punishment for offenders who are more likely to pose an ongoing danger to society.  Certain drug or firearm possession charges still carry a life sentence for 3rd strike offenses, and the new law does not allow review of sentence for inmates whose prior convictions were for rape, murder, or child molestation.  Designed to allow ex-offenders who do not pose a danger to society a second chance, the law gives judges the authority to review cases prior to any decisions are made. 

Controversy Over Proposition 36

The act of reducing inmate sentences has generated some controversy, particularly among lawmakers concerned that the released individuals would not receive proper supervision.   Judge Ryan acknowledged that the ex-offenders would benefit from ongoing supervision after their release, however, he could not legally order it given the length of time they had been in prison. 

Mike Reynolds, a strong advocate for the passage of the third strike law in 1994 after his daughter’s murder, has come out in opposition to Proposition 36 because the released ex-offenders are not subject to regular supervision.  Seeing it as a “very dangerous precedent,” Reynolds, and many others across the state, argue that releasing ex-offenders without supervision would result in repeat offenses and an increase in criminal activity.

Those in support of the law counter that ex-offenders can succeed provided they are given the necessary support services and opportunities to find housing, work and treatment for substance abuse problems.  As with any released inmate, the men and women facing release under Proposition 36 are expected to face difficulties readjusting once released.  While there will likely be repeat offenders, California’s new stance on 3rd strike represents a less strict approach to criminal punishment and offers hope for inmates serving life sentences for non-violent and minor offenses.  Judge Ryan says that he has received over 1,00 requests so far, most by attorneys advocating softer application of the 3rd strike law.

 

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