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Counties Go To Great Lengths To Dig Up Inmates Eligible For Resentencing

Publication Date: 
May 30, 2013
Daily Journal
Hamed Aleaziz

Michael Romano, director and co-founder of the Three Strikes Project, spoke with the Daily Journal's Hamed Aleaziz about the number of inmates eligible for resentencing who may be overlooked and his concern that most vulnerable people are "falling through the cracks" in counties throughout the state.

When voters approved Proposition 36 to soften the state's controversial three-strikes law, advocates hailed the moment as crucial in reforming a major component of California's criminal justice system. The measure, which received 69 percent of the vote in last year's general election, amended the law so that in most instances, sentences of 25 years to life would only be imposed if an offender's third strike is a serious or violent crime. It also allowed many prisoners who'd already received such a sentence to petition for a lighter sentence, which in many cases resulted in the early release of prisoners entirely on time already served. But the harder task may be yet to come.

Because of county database shortcomings, language barriers and unreliable information in prisons, some legal experts and public defenders worry that certain inmates who are eligible for resentencing could be passed up. So in many counties, public defenders have begun to comb through reams of documents to identify every eligible inmate.

But "it's difficult to know what you don't know," said Michael Romano, a co-author of Prop. 36 and the director of Stanford Law School's Three Strikes Project, which represents inmates imprisoned under the law.


All told, Romano at Stanford estimates that the CDCR list is missing up to about 10 percent of inmates who could be eligible for resentencing. That estimate, he said, is based on his comparison of the CDCR's list of eligible inmates against a 2011 list of all third-strikers in California prisons, which he obtained from the CDCR as part of a data-sharing agreement.

To help ensure all eligible inmates have a chance to request a new sentence, Romano said that after comparing the lists, he will contact counties to provide them with the additional information.

He said he worries that some of the remaining prisoners may be those least capable of advocating for themselves.

"This is the community of the most vulnerable people in prison," Romano said. "The people who don't realize it, I'm confident, have very low education, quite possibly illiterate and they need the most assistance. It is extremely problematic if they're falling through the cracks."