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California will allow up to 4,000 nonviolent third-strike criminals with life sentences to seek parole

California will allow up to 4,000 nonviolent third-strike criminals with life sentences to seek parole
Prisoners from Sacramento County await processing after arriving at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, Calif., on Feb. 20, 2014. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

California will reconsider life sentences for up to 4,000 nonviolent third-strike criminals by allowing them to seek parole under a ballot measure approved by voters two years ago, according to court documents obtained by the Associated Press on Thursday.

The state will craft new regulations by January to include the repeat offenders in early release provisions. Gov. Jerry Brown also will not appeal a court ruling that the state is illegally excluding the nonviolent career criminals from parole under the 2016 ballot measure he championed to reduce the prison population and encourage rehabilitation.

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The state parole board estimates 3,000 to 4,000 nonviolent third-strikers could be affected, said corrections department spokeswoman Vicky Waters, “but they would have to go through rigorous public safety screenings and a parole board hearing before any decision is made.”

It's the second such loss for the Democratic governor, who leaves office days after the new rules are due. Another judge ruled in February that the state must consider earlier parole for potentially thousands of sex offenders. The administration is fighting that ruling, which undercuts repeated promises that Brown made to voters to exclude sex offenders from earlier release.

He will not appeal last month's ruling by a three-judge appellate panel in the Second Appellate District in a Los Angeles County case that third-strikers must be included under Proposition 57's constitutional amendment. It requires parole consideration for “any person convicted of a nonviolent felony offense” regardless of enhancements under California's three-strikes law.

“There is no question that the voters who approved Proposition 57 intended [inmates] serving Three Strikes indeterminate sentences to be eligible for early parole consideration,” the appeals court ruled, adding that, “There is strong evidence the voters who approved Proposition 57 sought to provide relief to nonviolent offenders.”

Administration lawyers said in a filing in a separate related case that the state “is not seeking review” of the appeals court decision and “is in the process of drafting new emergency regulations in compliance” with the decision by Jan. 5.

Michael Romano, director of the Stanford Three Strikes Project, called the administration's decision to comply “a big deal, a huge deal.”

Clients potentially affected by the new decision include inmates serving life terms for stealing a bicycle, possessing less than half a gram of methamphetamine, stealing two bottles of liquor or shoplifting shampoo, he said.

“It's a monumental decision. It's one of the biggest decisions on sentencing policy in the Brown administration,” said Romano, whose project represented third-strike inmates in several appeals.

The ruling doesn't guarantee any of the offenders will get out of jail. But it allows them to go before the parole board. Romano estimates 4,000 people will be eligible for parole.

Nonviolent third-strikers are disproportionately black, disproportionately mentally ill and statistically among the least likely to commit additional crimes, said Romano, who has studied the issue.

He cited corrections department data on more than 2,200 nonviolent, non-serious third strikers who were paroled under a 2012 ballot measure that allowed most inmates serving life terms for relatively minor third strikes to ask courts for shorter terms. Less than 11% returned to prison by October 2016, the latest data available, he said, compared with nearly 45% for other prisoners.

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