NOT ALL ELIGIBLE PRISONERS ARE EXPECTED TO GAIN EARLY RELEASE
Last November, California voters overwhelmingly amended the state’s Three Strikes Law, one of the nation’s toughest sentencing laws against repeat offenders. But while 2,800 prisoners are eligible for reduced sentences under the revised law, the number who will actually be re-sentenced may be much smaller.
The Three Strikes Law was passed by voters in 1994, allowing judges to sentence offenders to 25 years-to-life if they commit three felonies (“strikes”), even if the third strike is not serious or violent. Over the years, many stories emerged of men and women sentenced to life in state prison for minor offenses such as stealing pizza, shoplifting clothes, or making off with small amounts of food.
In November, by a 2-1 margin, voters passed Proposition 36 to eliminate minor, non-violent crimes as possible third strikes. The Proposition also allows some offenders serving life sentences for nonviolent and non-serious third strikes to apply for reduced sentences.
One San Quentin prisoner who is eligible for re-sentencing is 51-year-old Carl Wayne Wyatt from Kern County. According to Wyatt’s court papers, he was convicted of possession of a dirty spoon with dried up cotton in it. He received a sentence of 25 years-to-life.
If approved for release, “I’ll be able to gain back my life,” Wyatt said. “I’ll be able to see my three grandkids, who I’ve never seen.”
“I can’t wait to get back working in the oil fields and to work as a certified volunteer firefighter, as I was,” he added. “The state will never put handcuffs on me again.”
But although Wyatt has no record of serious or violent crimes, his re-sentencing is uncertain.
According to an article by California Watch, the California District Attorneys Association is recommending that “district attorneys file subpoenas for the prison records of inmates seeking re-sentencing hearings” before decisions are made on any sentence modification. The article explained that the courts would be looking at “everything from the offenders’ health and psychological profile to their participation in rehabilitation programs.”
Since the election, some eligible prisoners are concerned they may be denied re-sentencing because of prison disciplinary action. They feel the disciplinary process is unfair because many prisoners are not allowed to present witnesses and evidence on their behalf. Even though officials claim the hearings protect constitutional rights, some prisoners feel this is not always the case.
One Third Striker who asked to remain unnamed received a rules violation for “tattoo paraphernalia,” which was actually a set of approved guitar strings. When the prisoner showed the strings were authorized, the prison’s appeals coordinator changed the charge to “possession of dangerous contraband,” a more serious charge.
The prisoner requested that he be entitled to his basic due process rights to confront evidence but was told the evidence (the guitar strings) were destroyed per institution policy. His appeal was denied at the highest level because the appeals process does not factor in declarations made by the prisoner, only by the reporting employee.
Some Third Strikers are concerned that such incidents might prompt denial of a chance at freedom, even with no serious or violent crimes on the record.
Greg Tabarez, a 59-year-old construction worker who spent many years repairing sidewalks and gutters in Sacramento California, was sentenced to 25 years to life for “simple possession” of a controlled substance.
“There is more to do on the Three Strikes Law”
Tabarez, who also has no history of violence, does not see a parole board until 2022. “I think Prop 36 should apply only to those offenders with serious or violent crimes as it was intended in 1994.” Tabarez went on to say that he believes SB-971 should have been changed years ago, explaining that, “the lives of many low risk offenders have been ruined because of this mean-spirited law.”
But some district attorneys support the changes to the Three Strikes Law. District Attorneys Steve Cooley of Los Angeles County, Jeffrey Rosen of Santa Clara County, and George Gasçon of San Francisco County all endorsed Proposition 36.
Defense attorney Dan Barton of Palo Alto, who recently visited San Quentin’s Journalism Guild, called Proposition 36 a minor change in the law. “We needed to do something to fix this law, and Proposition 36 was a good start,” he said.
Barton cautioned that a prisoner who qualifies for sentence modification under Proposition 36 would have one shot at his or her freedom via the hearing. However, if denied, Barton said that decision could be appealed to a higher court. He added that the judge will evaluate all completed forms and documents before deciding any change in an eligible prisoner’s sentence.
In Santa Clara County, where Barton practices, “officials from the District Attorneys Office, the Probation Department, the Public Defenders Office and other court representatives have put together a ‘sentencing package’ to be used in each case. It’ll be almost like a parole hearing.”
The fight to reform the Three Strikes Law is not over. Barbara Brooks, with Sentencing Justice and Reform Advocacy, said her organization is in it for the long run.
“There is more to do on the Three Strikes Law, and we are giving serious thought to that,” she told the San Quentin News in a telephone interview.
The SJRA wants to form a coalition of Three Strikers, both inside and outside prisons. “There are many who want to continue and help those who don’t make it out,” she said.
Brooks said she believes those who do get out “owe it to the ones left behind, possibly all prisoners… because what they do after released will form the attitudes that the public and those in government will have toward prisoners in general.”