An undetermined number of state prisoners from Sacramento are likely to gain their freedom from the life terms they've been serving, thanks to a softening of California's "three-strikes" law.
An estimated 160 Sacramento three-strikers are expected to apply for resentencing hearings, as a result of the voters' November approval of Proposition 36. The initiative gave some three-strike offenders a pathway to freedom if the conviction that put them in prison for 25-to-life wasn't for a felony statutorily defined as serious or violent.
Proposition 36 qualified as many as 3,700 three-strike prisoners in California for resentencing hearings, and a smattering already have won their releases in San Diego, Orange, Kern and Contra Costa counties.
In Sacramento, officials from the Public Defender's Office and the District Attorney's Office and, of course, the Superior Court judges will be reviewing the resentencing applications in batches of 20 to 25.
One top official in the DA's Office suggested that an untold number of offenders are likely to win their freedom.
At the very least, Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Lori Greene said, "I anticipate there will be a portion of them where we will not oppose any resentencing" but only if prosecutors feel confident that the applicant does not pose a danger to the public. A total of 575 inmates have been sentenced to 25-to-life three-strike terms out of Sacramento County.
Greene said she can't say for sure on how many cases her office will stand aside, if any. She said prosecutors first must examine records on the applicants' prison conduct, which are now being forwarded to local officials by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The Public Defender's Office has taken the lead in preparing and filing the motions on behalf of three-strikes prisoners looking to get out. Among the first inmates expected to be released if their petitions are approved are applicants who are blind, are suffering from Alzheimer's or ones who have terminal cancer, said Chief Assistant Public Defender Karen Flynn.
For offenders whose qualifying felony was relatively minor but who had criminal pasts that included at least two residential burglaries, Proposition 36 gave them their best glimmer of hope to get out since the nation's toughest career criminal statute went on the books in 1994.
"I've been practicing law since 1983 and this is the most exciting event in my criminal defense career," said Flynn, who is coordinating the Proposition 36 resentencing applications that are being directed to her agency.
Flynn and other assistant public defenders are still in the process of subpoenaing and receiving the prison records on inmates who have filed for resentencing hearings. The records would include documentation on any special drug treatment, education and employment programs offenders have taken and completed while behind bars.
The defense lawyers also are asking prison officials for the applicants' complete criminal record as well as information on their psychological backgrounds.
"I don't consider it a burden," Flynn said of the public defender's role in processing the resentencing cases. "I consider it a privilege."
She said her office has been bombarded by questions from inmate relatives. Some of the family members wanting information are wives who married the offenders in prison after they'd already been sentenced to their 25-to-life terms and have stuck with them since.
"A lot of people are crying over the phone," she said, about relatives who thought their loved ones in prison would never get out, but who now have been given new hope by Proposition 36.
In addition to the families, Flynn said several individuals and agencies have told the Public Defender's Office they would be willing to sponsor inmates who do get out, maybe put them up in a place to live or guarantee them a job.
One inmate sentenced out of Sacramento County who has filed a resentencing petition is Aaron Collins, 45. He was convicted in 1995 of possession of marijuana while he was serving time at California State Prison, Sacramento. Collins had two prior convictions at the time for burglary and one for robbery.
"I am anticipating and awaiting an opportunity to start my life all over again," Collins said, in a telephone interview from California State Prison, Los Angeles.
Collins said Flynn told him his hearing will probably be set within the next 90 days.
More than six weeks after the passage of Proposition 36, some inmates, including Collins, are growing anxious over the scheduling on their resentencing hearings.
They've filed their writs, but still are waiting for hearing dates to be posted on the court calendar.
Flynn told them to stay calm.
"Your day is coming and we're going to be fighting very hard," she said.
"Many of these people have been praying for this for years and years and years. Finally, there is a little bit of light, and hopefully they're going to walk through that door."