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Prison

Prosecutors' opposition could limit release of third-strike inmates

State inmates serving life terms are starting to file resentencing petitions with local judges following the passage of Proposition 36, the ballot measure that overhauls California's controversial three strikes law. But opposition from local prosecutors and other factors could limit the number of qualifying inmates who actually get released.

Scott Thorpe, CEO of the California District Attorneys Association, said his organization is recommending that district attorneys file subpoenas for the prison records of inmates seeking a resentencing hearing so they can scrutinize everything from the offenders’ health and psychological profile to their participation in rehabilitation programs.

“We’re arguing that everything should be taken into consideration,” he said. “If they haven’t taken advantage of programs that were available to them, we’re saying that’s a relevant fact in determining whether this is a responsible person to go out into society."

Prop. 36 allows sentence reductions for inmates convicted under the original 1994 law if their third strike was not a serious or violent felony (as defined by the California Penal Code) and their prior convictions did not include rape, murder, child molestation or other grave crimes.

Some 2,800 inmates serving life terms could be eligible for shorter sentences or release under the measure, according to data from the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Of those offenders, nearly 70 percent originally were sentenced in five counties: Los Angeles, Kern, San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego.

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Fewer felons eligible to serve sentences in county jails

As California struggles to meet a court-ordered reduction of its prison population, newly released figures show corrections officials overstated the number of low-level offenders eligible to be diverted to local jurisdictions as part of Gov. Jerry Brown's public safety realignment plan.

At issue are inmates who were being sent to state prisons for parole and other technical violations and became eligible to serve their sentences in county jails after Oct. 1, 2011.

Corrections officials long have argued that the churn of low-level felons in and out of state prisons was a major factor in overcrowding. Closing the revolving door to prison by sending those offenders to county jails instead – as envisioned under realignment – would be a major element in resolving the crisis, they said.

Speaking at a media event at Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy in March, Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate put the figure at 47,000 offenders who had served terms of 90 days or less in 2011. 

“Those guys were just going through our system so quickly, but they were keeping those beds full and crowding our system,” he said.

 

Cate suggested that the drop in the prison population under realignment – more than 24,000 inmates to date – was largely due to placing parole violators and others under local supervision. Cate also said the state was “on track” to reach a June 2013 deadline set by a panel of federal judges to reduce the prison population to 110,000 inmates, or 137.5 percent of design capacity. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that order in 2011.

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Advocacy groups wary of new plan for prison isolation units

State corrections officials are moving forward with a plan for handling prison gangs and other violent groups, including changing rules that have kept some inmates locked in special isolation units for decades. 

But the initiative is raising concern among prisoner rights advocates and some experts who worry that it will do little to improve stark conditions or cut the backlog of inmates awaiting placement into the units.

“There’s nothing I can see in this policy that will change the flow of inmates into these very expensive facilities,” said David Ward, a retired University of Minnesota sociologist who served on an influential 2007 expert panel appointed by the state to study how California manages prison gangs.

At issue are California’s four Security Housing Units, which are designed to isolate the state’s most dangerous inmates, including those connected to violent prison gangs. The units routinely have been denounced as inhumane by civil rights groups and were the focus of widespread hunger strikes last year.

Early next month, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will begin modifying operations in the special units under a plan that has been in development for more than a year. The department has asserted that nearly all 3,000 inmates being held in the facilities – at Pelican Bay State Prison, California State Prison Corcoran, the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi and California State Prison Sacramento – are active in prison gangs.

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Outside prison walls, parolees meet, eat and offer support

They’re not the young men they were when they went to prison decades ago.

Some have grown children and several have lost some hair. They tease each other about the weight they’ve gained since moving on from prison cuisine.

The men were among seven former residents of San Quentin State Prison attending a picnic at Golden Gate Park earlier this month. The picnic was organized by the Alliance for CHANGE, or Creating Hope And New Goals Ethically, a rehabilitation and re-entry program at the prison started by a small group of inmates, academics and volunteers.

Most of the men were lifers who were paroled within the past two years. Although they earned degrees, wrote court appeals and worked with at-risk youth inside the prison, outside, some are still living in group homes or struggling to buy computers and find meaningful work. The gathering served as an opportunity to lend each other support.

 

“We’ve taken lives, kidnapped people, we have done a lot of different things,” said the program’s co-founder Ernest Morgan, who served 24 years for killing his stepsister during a botched burglary. “But some of us have done a lot of work on ourselves and want to be productive.”

Henry Montgomery, out of prison less than a month, stood near a tree-lined slope and listened to the sounds of children playing across the meadow.

“That fills my heart,” he said. “Kids at a picnic – that’s life.”

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States quietly scramble to find execution drug

Sodium thiopental, the anesthetizing agent used in the nation’s three-drug lethal injection cocktail, is hard to come by these days.

Attorney General Jerry Brown recently disclosed that the state has enough for just four executions. Death penalty opponents want to know where it came from, but prison officials aren't saying, citing ongoing litigation over whether the state's method of executing death row inmates is cruel and unusual.

California's problem of finding enough of the lethal drug – seven inmates are nearing their execution dates – is being mirrored throughout the nation as other death penalty states look for the dwindling supply of the drug:

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