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. 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. But not everyone is in support of parole eligibility. Some law enforcement agencies and victims' families are raising public safety concerns. Opponents argue once released, these offenders can become dangerous and involve in more serious crimes. We debate.
With files from the Associated Press.
Michael Romano, director and founder of Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School; co-author of Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012, Proposition 36, a ballot measure that resulted in reduced sentences for inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes
Robert Mestman, senior deputy district attorney of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and assistant head of Court of Felony Panel, where he supervises a team of felony trial attorneys (OCDA)