Proposition 36 was passed by voters in every county in California, including Kern, on Nov. 6. The sentencing reform initiative makes certain convicted criminals sentenced to terms of 25 years to life under the state's three-strikes law eligible for resentencing. Unless they are deemed to pose an unacceptable risk to public safety, many will have their sentences reduced -- and some will undoubtedly be released.
Enter the Kern County District Attorney's Office. It's the DA's job to argue before a judge against the resentencing of eligible third-strikers if a sufficient public safety risk exists. But from the sound of it, the DA's office has already decided that all of the anticipated 100 people eligible for resentencing from Kern are public safety threats who don't deserve lesser sentences under any circumstances. Earlier this month, Assistant District Attorney Scott Spielman told The Californian that reducing sentences for third-strikers would lead to increased crime locally and that his office would scour all available records to prove that anyone sentenced under the old terms of three strikes should continue to serve their 25-year sentence.
"These people have clearly demonstrated they're career or habitual criminals," Spielman said.
It's not surprising that prosecutors would take a hard line on resentencing since District Attorney Lisa Green previously told The Californian's editorial board that the resentencing of third-strikers is unnecessary since judges already had the discretion to impose lighter punishment at initial sentencings. (However, many say judges didn't know they had this discretion or chose not to use it even if they did know.) Nor will we be shocked if Green's office opposes each and every one of those 100 eligible cases. But we hope that's not the case.
Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach that aims to keep as many people as possible serving for as long as possible, the DA's office should step back long enough to make reasoned judgments about each individual before it contests a resentencing. Does he or she truly present a significant risk to society? And the DA's office needs to use reasonable standards to reach its conclusion, not suppositions that crime will increase if sentences are reduced.
It's important to note that many of these third-strikers have already served long sentences during which time they have received job training or obtained their high school diploma equivalencies. Some are old or physically disabled in wheelchairs. That needs to be factored into their "risk" evaluation as well.
It's very likely that some inmates who might be eligible for resentencing may pose unacceptable threats to public safety if released. And we have full confidence in our county prosecutors to identify those individuals and argue convincingly against their resentencing. (The new law already prohibits resentencing for anyone previously convicted of murder, rape or child molestation.)
But we don't think the district attorney's job is to oppose resentencing at all costs and retain as many 25-year to life sentences as possible. This may be a law-and-order, tough-on-crime town, but even Kern County voters believe three-strikes sentences deserved reconsideration. The district attorney should honor those voters' intentions and use reasoned judgment in determining which resentencing cases to vigorously contest.