Legrante Ellis is 13 years into a 25-years-to-life sentence for credit card fraud in the amount of $442.61. Arthur Johnson, a 63-year-old Vietnam War veteran, has served more than 21 years of a 75-years-to-life sentence for residential burglary. Robert Brown, 57, has been incarcerated for 18 years for having a knife he was using as a mechanic.
These men were sentenced under California’s three-strikes law, which mandates 25 years to life for a third felony, including nonviolent ones. Proposition 36, passed in 2012, offered some relief to third-strikers convicted of nonviolent offenses, but more than 2,700 remain in prison.
Last November, California voters gave prisoners serving extreme sentences for nonviolent crimes another chance by overwhelmingly passing Proposition 57. Among other things, it allows those convicted of nonviolent offenses to be eligible for parole after serving their base term, before a sentencing enhancement or alternative sentence.
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On July 14, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation released proposed regulations on nonviolent parole consideration and credit earning under Prop. 57. To our dismay, this plan excludes nonviolent third-strikers.
The intent of Prop. 57 was to safely reduce California’s burgeoning prison population, while offering relief to the thousands of prisoners and their families who have suffered through years, if not decades, of incarceration for minor offenses. The exclusion of nonviolent third-strikers stands in stark contrast to the spirit of Prop. 57 to include those serving time for an “alternative sentence” – what a third strike is considered under state law.
Third-strikers are unfortunately painted as career criminals when in reality they have the lowest rates of recidivism. Older prisoners behind bars for longer periods of time return to prison far less often than most other prisoners. They are human beings who have lost years of their lives and whose loved ones have been forced to make lives without them.
Furthermore, Prop. 57 was not written to guarantee early release; it is merely an opportunity for people serving long sentences for nonviolent offenses to be rigorously screened and only be granted parole if the Board of Parole Hearings finds they will not threaten public safety.
It is nonsensical to continue imprisoning those convicted of nonviolent offenses for such extended periods of time. It is expensive, harms families and communities and does not improve public safety. The public has until September to comment on these proposed Prop. 57 regulations. Shortly after comments are reviewed, the regulations will become permanent.
Now is the time for the public to take action and help persuade the state to uphold the intent of Prop. 57.
Taina Vargas-Edmond and Richard Edmond Vargas are the co-founders of Initiate Justice, an Oakland-based grassroots organization. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively.