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7 third strike inmates in LA County get shorter sentences at Prop 36 hearing

Still Burning/Flickr Creative Commons

A typical prison cell.

Seven inmates serving life sentences on third strike convictions had their sentences reduced Thursday by a Los Angeles judge.

They'll be out of prison in a matter of days.

The men applied for reduced sentences under Proposition 36, the November initiative that scaled back California's three strikes law. The measure opened the door for possible sentence reductions for about 2,800 inmates serving life sentences for non-serious, non-violent third strikes.

About a thousand cases — or 40 percent of the state's total — are in L.A. County; as of Thursday, 19 have been resolved.

Attorney Gregory Apt said when Prop 36 passed, there was a lot of elation among inmates in the prison system. Apt works with the L.A. County Alternate Public Defender, the office representing about 100 of the inmates petitioning for reduced sentences.

"I'd get phone calls and letters saying, 'I'm ready to get out,'" Apt said. "Now people realize there's a process that doesn't just involve them walking out of prison the next day. Some people have been frustrated, but most of the people are very understanding. They've been in prison for a long time."

Among those re-sentenced Thursday were Sean David Simms, convicted in 2000 of stealing a $399 stereo from a Sears store in the San Fernando Valley. Simms had multiple prior convictions, including one for negligently discharging a gun on New Year's Eve and another for participating in a convenience store holdup. 

On Thursday, Superior Court Judge William Ryan — who's handling all of the county's Prop 36 sentence reduction cases — reduced the 25-years-to-life sentence that Simms had been serving to nine years, the maximum allowed. Since Simms has been in prison for 12 years, he'll be released without parole or community supervision.

Lauren Young, whose conviction on a petty theft charge was his third strike, was re-sentenced to eight years in prison. He's already served that time. 

Ryan told Young's wife and son, who attended the hearing, that it'll take 10 to 15 days to process the appropriate paperwork for Young's release.

Hearings for three other inmates were delayed so attorneys could collect more information.

Among those re-sentenced Thursday, only Denis Hicks will be supervised by county probation officers once he's out.

That fact bothers prosecutors in the District Attorney's Office. They asked Ryan to order the former third strikers to report for supervision once they're released.

But the judge said he doesn't have the authority to order supervision for anyone who's served three years more than their reduced sentence. Three years is the maximum parole term.

In Thursday's cases, Assistant District Attorney Beth Widmark didn't oppose the inmates' release — but she said that won't always be the case.

Prosecutors traveled around the state to conduct interviews and collect records that will help them determine if an inmate would pose a risk if released, she said. 

"You really get to know them when you go to the prison and see what they've been doing with their lives," said Widmark.

She said many of the inmates "are doing very well" — but not all.

The next sentence reduction hearing date for third strikers is April 10. 

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