An appellate court on Tuesday blocked the release of a three-strikes prisoner whose sentence was reduced under a California ballot measure approved last year, concluding that prosecutors have the right to oppose resentencing of third strikers they believe are too dangerous.
The panel of three justices threw out an order reducing Steven Joseph Kaulick's prison sentence to seven years from 25 years to life. The new sentence made Kaulick eligible for immediate release because he had already served more than 12 years.
The justices concluded that Superior Court Judge Cynthia Ulfig should have given the Los Angeles County district attorney's office the opportunity to argue that Kaulick was a danger to the public before she resentenced him in December.
Under Proposition 36, which state voters overwhelmingly approved in November, about 2,800 inmates sentenced to life terms under the three-strikes law can ask judges to reduce their sentences if their third strikes were neither violent nor serious under the law. Judges are required to resentence such offenders unless they determine that doing so would pose an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.
The justices noted that Kaulick had a violent criminal record. His prior strikes stemmed from an incident in which he kidnapped his parents at gunpoint in 1989. During the ordeal, Kaulick repeatedly punched his father, strangled him and threatened to kill him, the appellate justices said in their opinion.
Kaulick picked up a third strike conviction in 2000, when a jury convicted him of false imprisonment of a woman he allegedly attacked in his home. Jurors deadlocked on charges of assault with intent to commit rape and making criminal threats.
At his third-strike sentencing hearing, the trial court judge noted that the victim was lucky not to have been raped. The judge described Kaulick as "a person that should be confined for as long as humanly possible" and sentenced him to 26 years to life.
After approval of Proposition 36, Kaulick filed paperwork with the Los Angeles County court in December asking for his sentence to be reduced. Ulfig granted his request on Dec. 31. In January, the district attorney's office learned what had happened and asked the appellate court to block Kaulick's release, according to Tuesday's opinion.
Prosecutors researched Kaulick's prison record and discovered that he had been guilty of misconduct several times in prison. Among his offenses were episodes of battery on a peace officer, fighting and possession of alcohol, the opinion said.
The district attorney's office argued that Kaulick's release would pose an unreasonable risk to public safety and that he should serve out his full sentence.
The justices ordered that Ulfig hold a new hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to prove "by a preponderance of the evidence" that Kaulick is a danger to the public and should not be released. The appellate panel also concluded that victims have a right to be heard at such hearings.