Majorities in every California county voted last fall to scale back the state’s three-strikes law so thousands of inmates serving life sentences for relatively minor third offenses would have the chance to be set free.
Five months later, there is no such unanimity among counties when it comes to carrying out the voters’ wishes.
Whether a third-strike felon eventually will gain freedom varies greatly depending on the county that sent him or her away, according to an Associated Press analysis of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation data.
In San Bernardino County, which has the second-highest number of eligible inmates, 29 percent of the 291 three-strikes inmates have been granted release under Proposition 36. But in Los Angeles and San Diego counties, just 6percent of the nearly 1,300 eligible inmates have had their sentences reduced so far.
Statewide, 15 percent of 2,847 eligible inmates have been resentenced.
Defense attorneys blame prosecutors in some counties for opposing inmate petitions for resentencing even in cases where the prisoner clearly qualifies for early release under the language of Prop. 36. Those oppositions require time-consuming court hearings and written arguments.
“We are frustrated that some DAs are stubbornly refusing to follow the law,” said Michael Romano, who authored Prop. 36 and runs the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School. The project represents about 20 inmates seeking resentencing.
Prosecutors say a decision to set repeat felons free should not be made in haste.
“These people aren’t doing life sentences because they are nice people,” said San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Greg Walden, who handles the petitions for his office. “I don’t want to make a mistake and then later have to apologize to a family later victimized by one of these people let out.”
Prop. 36 was backed by 68 percent of voters. It modified the state’s 1996 three-strikes law that stipulated a life sentence for a third felony conviction even if it was for a low-level offense such as stealing a bicycle.
Under the new law, inmates file applications for early release in the counties where they committed their last crimes.