Crime - Sacto 911

Public defender helps Sacramento County felons reduce past convictions

Correctional officers escort inamtes at Pelican Bay to their cells.
Correctional officers escort inamtes at Pelican Bay to their cells. Bee file

The Sacramento County Public Defender’s Office is offering thousands of local felons an opportunity to reduce past theft and drug convictions to misdemeanors.

The office has issued public notices and sent representatives to community gatherings to advertise a path that retroactively allows people with felony convictions to convert drug possession, shoplifting and stolen property offenses into misdemeanors. That opportunity was created by Proposition 47, which almost 60 percent of voters statewide approved in November.

In Sacramento County, where the measure received less support – 53 percent – judges and prosecutors are concerned that dangerous felons could be released from incarceration under the law, echoing warnings issued before the election by then-District Attorney Jan Scully, Sheriff Scott Jones and other California law enforcement leaders. Still, those same county officials praise the Public Defender’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office for effectively implementing the new law.

The new law classifies theft of $950 or less or certain drug possession crimes as misdemeanors. Those include property theft, shoplifting, receiving stolen property, writing bad checks, check forgery and possession of illegal drugs for personal use, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Under previous law, many of those offenses were considered “wobblers,” meaning they could have been prosecuted as felonies or misdemeanors.

Supporters during the campaign said Proposition 47 would reduce the inmate population in the state’s overcrowded prisons and jails, saving hundreds of millions of dollars annually and directing those funds toward mental health, drug treatment, truancy reduction and victim services grants.

Karen Flynn of the Sacramento County Public Defender’s Office estimates that 60,000 people have been convicted in Sacramento County of crimes covered by Proposition 47 in the last 20 years, though she is not sure how many of those are disqualified for a reduced sentence based on having a past sex crime or murder conviction. Of the 60,000, about 8,000 have already had applications reviewed in Sacramento Superior Court.

Statistics aren’t available for all of the cases. But of more than 2,000 cases reviewed by the judge primarily handling Proposition 47 requests through May, nearly half were rejected, said Robin Shakely, a Sacramento County assistant chief deputy district attorney. The rejected cases involved felons who had convictions for offenses other than drug or property crimes or prior offenses for murder or a sex offense, she said.

Many of the people who successfully had their crimes downgraded were freed from incarceration as a result, Flynn and Shakely said.

The law prohibits the release of offenders who have past convictions for murder or certain sex crimes. Still, “there are a lot of dangerous people who have been released under Prop. 47,” Shakely said. “The public would be surprised by the people who have been released under this law.”

Sacramento County is one of four counties in California actively notifying the public of the opportunity to erase a felony record, said Lenore Anderson, a Proposition 47 co-author and executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, which spearheaded the campaign for the measure.

She praised Sacramento County and others for their outreach because she said such efforts will help people take advantage of a law intended to remove barriers to employment, student loans, housing and other economic opportunities.

While the law contains no explicit public notification requirements, Flynn said she has taken it upon herself to go to churches and community gatherings to let people know about the opportunity to clean up their record.

“It’s the best thing to happen in my 30 years as a public defender,” said Flynn, chief assistant public defender.

She said the law serves as an antidote to a criminal justice system that has prosecuted minorities disproportionally for drugs and shoplifting.

But Shakely said Proposition 47 allows those with prior convictions for violent crimes to be released as long as their offenses fell short of murder or sex crimes. A man serving a four-year sentence for drug possession at Pelican Bay, where the state holds its most serious offenders, was released in November, despite having a record for robbery and illegal weapons possession, she said. That same offender had been charged and acquitted of murder.

Anderson said the law requires judges to determine that a released offender would not be a public safety risk before reducing a sentence.

But Judge Marjorie Koller, who has been designated to handle many of the Prop. 47 cases in Sacramento Superior Court, said the law does not give judges latitude to reject an application from an offender who meets the law’s requirements for past and current offenses. The law defines public safety risk as someone likely to commit murder or a sex offense, and it is difficult to make that determination unless they have done so in the past. Such offenders are already ineligible for release under the law, she said.

The Public Defender’s Office urges eligible Sacramento County offenders to apply for a reclassification of their criminal record by calling Flynn at (916) 874-5732. Applications are also available online at www.publicdefender.saccounty.net/Documents/Prop-47-Information-Form.pdf

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