Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A judge's gavel rests on top of a desk in a courtroom.
A Los Angeles man serving 25 years to life for stealing a stereo is one of 10 California prison inmates who'll petition an L.A. Superior Court judge for re-sentencing Thursday.
Judge William Ryan will decide if the men qualify for reduced sentences under last November's Proposition 36, the voter-approved initiative aimed at toning down one of the nation's strictest three-strikes sentencing laws.
Before Prop 36, judges could hand down a 25-years-to-life sentence for any third felony conviction, including drug possession and petty theft. Now a "third strike" felony conviction must be for a serious or violent crime to warrant that sentence.
Inmates currently serving lengthy prison terms for a non-serious, non-violent "third strike" can petition the sentencing court for a reduced term under Prop 36. So far, about 2,800 inmates statewide filed petitions for re-sentencing.
All 1,000 petitions filed in Los Angeles County came to Judge Ryan, whose full time job this year is sorting through the "third strike" paperwork.
"They came in a huge rush and overwhelmed the court staff," said Ryan, so all parties involved agreed to have him manage the cases. About a dozen inmates have received new sentences so far, with the oldest and critically ill inmates getting the quickest court dates.
Not all will qualify for reduced sentences
Under Prop 36, inmates with petitions pending before Judge Ryan could be re-sentenced like second strikers, meaning they get double the sentence one would normally get for their crime.
And inmates who’ve served their full terms are let out within 10 days of Judge Ryan's ruling. Those who’ve already served more time than their new sentence, for the most part, are released into the community without parole or community supervision.
But the question is which inmate is suitable for less time behind bars? It's up to Ryan to decide.
"If re-sentencing you was a threat to public safety, you could still be denied relief," Ryan said. "So I'm going to be looking at what's their current conviction, what do their priors (convictions) look like, and how have they behaved in prison since they've gone to prison."
One man whose case comes up Thursday has been in prison since 2000 on a 28-years-to-life term for stealing a $399 stereo unit from a Sears store in the San Fernando Valley. His prior convictions included two serious or violent felonies: recklessly discharging a shotgun on New Year's Eve in 1990 and a convenience store holdup in 1996.
When he was arrested in the stereo theft case, the prosecutor decided to charge it as a "third strike" felony.
At his sentencing, the man, who was a new father, asked the court for leniency. His defense attorney called the "third strike" sentence "too draconian" for what "amounted basically to a petty theft."
But the judge reviewed the man's criminal record and found he'd been in and out of lockups constantly, making him the sort of offender three-strikes targeted.
"There's really no time when he's gone without picking up new matters," the judge said, according to a court transcript.
While in prison, the inmate has had three serious write-ups: one for swearing at a staff member, and two for illegal alcohol possession. He has since joined prison programs run by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
Worries about releasing inmates without supervision
If Ryan finds the inmate suitable for a sentence reduction under Prop 36, his maximum term would come down to nine years. Since he's already served that time, he would be released from prison.
He has a low-risk score of re-offending, but Ryan still worries about releasing such inmates without supervision after they've spent years in the criminal justice system.
"We give you $200 and a bus ticket and say 'Good luck,'" Ryan said.
The L.A. County District Attorney's office contends that re-sentenced three strikers who've served their full terms should be placed on post-release community supervision, same as most other inmates leaving prison after serving time for non-serious, non-violent offenses.
Ryan agreed that supervision may be a good idea, but the law doesn't address that for inmates who've served their full terms, plus a three-year parole term.
"The statutory scheme doesn't allow for it," said Ryan. "I think that's probably one of the things that should have been in Prop 36, but was not."
Changing that is a job for lawmakers, not judges.
So far, the district attorney hasn't contested a Prop 36 case in L.A. County. But that won't be true of all 1,000 cases.
Ryan expects getting through the entire pile will take the rest of the year.
"With budget cuts, strained resources, it's tough," Ryan said. "But we'll get through it."