Aaron Collins wants out of prison, and Ronald Koroush doesn't want to go in, at least not for as long as the DA wants to put him away and both figure to catch a break if California voters approve Proposition 36.
Career criminals with multiple major convictions in their pasts, Collins, who is serving a 25-to-life term, and Koroush, who faces one, are targeted for relief under the initiative slated for the Nov. 6 ballot.
One provision of Proposition 36 would allow inmates such as Collins to apply for resentencing hearings on their 25-to-life terms if the trigger offense that put them behind bars was low grade, such as his conviction for possession of marijuana in prison.
Another prong of the measure would prohibit prosecutors from seeking maximum 25-to-life terms under California's "three-strikes" law on defendants such as Koroush unless their qualifying case is "serious or violent." He's accused of possessing a mirror that his next-door neighbor claims was stolen off her back porch.
Collins and Koroush qualify as Sacramento case studies in the debate over Proposition 36, as civil rights groups and law-and-order organizations battle over California's career criminal statute for the third time in 18 years.
Passed by the Legislature and approved by voters in 1994, the state's three-strikes law allows for 25-to-life terms on any offender with two previous statutorily defined serious or violent felony convictions if they commit any third felony, no matter how minor. Approved by a 72 percent to 28 percent margin, the law survived a ballot challenge in 2004 by a much narrower 53 percent to 47 percent vote.
Looking forward and looking back, the Collins and Koroush cases are loaded with ammunition for both sides to illustrate their points in the Proposition 36 campaign.
Reflections on a mirror
Koroush, 52, who was living with his father in Wilton at the time of his arrest, has been in and out of custody for 27 years. His strikes include residential burglaries in 1985 and 1988. He has also picked up two commercial burglaries and three DUIs.
Most recently, he was arrested Jan. 6 on the single count of receiving stolen property. His bail is $1 million.
Sacramento County prosecutors have gained a reputation in the state for scaling back their pursuit of the heaviest terms for three-strikers, but they've pressed hard for one on Koroush. He is scheduled for trial Oct. 10.
District Attorney Jan Scully and her top aides declined to discuss Koroush, but deputy prosecutor Maria Wilson argued at the end of the defendant's May 11 preliminary hearing that his case is "a little more serious than what was presented on its face today."
Wilson said there was a "sexual nature" to Koroush's 1985 burglary, that he was nude when he broke into a woman's house. Wilson also said Koroush's female neighbor suspected him in the current case of stealing the mirror "because he had been looking over her fence and hiding in the bushes."
The state does not list Koroush as a registered sex offender. He declined to be interviewed. His public defender also declined to comment.
Jim Koroush, 76, the defendant's father, described his son as a longtime drug addict with no history of sex offenses. He strongly denied that his son ever spied on the neighbor or hid in her bushes.
"I think they're out for blood," Jim Koroush said of the DA's office.
Ronald Koroush told his dad he found the mirror leaning against a telephone pole next to his trash cans. The neighbor, who asked that her name be withheld, insisted the mirror was on her back porch.
"You do not want him living next door to you or your children," the woman said of Koroush.
Told of the facts of the case, the godfather of the state's three-strikes law, Mike Reynolds, whose daughter was murdered by a parolee, said the local prosecutor's office is in the best position to make the call on what prison term to seek. Proposition 36 would eliminate the discretion.
"We've hired our district attorneys to look at these cases for their history and to provide the best protection for us," Reynolds said. "That's what this is all about. If it was not a righteous case, the next election, that district attorney would be out of there."
Mike Romano, an attorney and director of the Stanford Three Strikes Project, which helped get Proposition 36 on the ballot, said if Koroush is a burglar or sex offender, he should be charged with those offenses. Even with Proposition 36, Koroush would face a 10-year-term if he's convicted, Romano said.
"That's the equivalent of a sentence for rape," Romano said.
Prison record considered
Down in California State Prison, Los Angeles, in Lancaster, Aaron Collins is preparing to file his petition to get out of custody if Proposition 36 passes. Collins has served 17 years for his possession of five bindles of marijuana found during a 1995 search of his cell at California State Prison, Sacramento.
Collins, 45, has a prior record that shows two residential burglaries and two robberies, among other drug and theft offenses. He said in a telephone interview he is optimistic he will qualify for resentencing and a likely release if Proposition 36 is approved.
"On the streets, this would be nothing but a misdemeanor," Collins said of his triggering offense.
All of his previous convictions are more than 22 years old, because of the time he has spent in prison, including the 24 years for the 1991 robbery in Los Angeles that had him locked up when he was caught with the pot.
Frances Huey, the Sacramento attorney who represented Collins in 1991, has stayed in touch.
"He's totally reformed," Huey said.
Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi said Sacramento prosecutors will evaluate Collins if he files for resentencing.
Along with his past convictions, a resentencing judge would also examine Collins' prison record. Collins said he has earned two associate of arts degrees and has completed several rehabilitation programs, but that he has also been written up for rules violations in recent years that include fighting with his cellmate and having a cellphone.
Reynolds, the three-strikes supporter, fears Collins and most, if not all, of the 3,700 inmates who qualify for resentencing, will be released.
"I'm very concerned," he said. "They have been criminals all their lives. That's all they've ever done, all they've ever known."
At Stanford, Romano said judges under Proposition 36 can consider factors such as prison behavior and inmates' prospects for success on the outside, as well as their rap sheets, to help determine whether any offender presents "an unreasonable risk to public safety."
"If the judge finds they are a threat to the community, then they will continue to serve out their sentence," Romano said. "Nobody wants people who remain a threat to public safety to get out of prison."