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Initiative asks for softening of 3 Strikes law; could release another 2,800 inmates
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SACRAMENTO  (AP) — California's law mandating life in prison for a third felony conviction has led to cases like that of Shane Taylor, who has been in prison since being convicted in 1996 for possessing $10 worth of methamphetamine. His prior felonies, both committed when he was 19, were a burglary and attempted burglary.

Supporters of Proposition 36 on the November ballot say inmates such as Taylor should have a chance to go free. They want to modify the nation's toughest three-strikes law so only a violent or serious third felony would lead to a life sentence.

But the initiative, if passed, also could benefit inmates such as 58-year-old Lupe Escobedo, who was convicted of committing 17 robberies in two years, 15 of them while he was armed with a gun or knife.

Escobedo had several other arrests or convictions for violent crimes before he was finally caught driving a stolen vehicle. After a struggle, officers found a sawed-off shotgun in his motel room, a gun that Escobedo said he would have used "to take out a cop" had he been able to reach it, according to a memo about the crime from the Ventura County District Attorney's Office.

He was sentenced to 50 years to life, but voter approval of Proposition 36 would mean his sentence could be reduced to 7 1/2 years if a judge decided he was no longer a threat to society.

"His record speaks for itself," said Michelle Contois, a deputy district attorney with Ventura County, where Escobedo was convicted. "He presents a public safety threat, and I believe he is the kind of person for whom Three Strikes was intended."

Opponents of the initiative say it would punish victims' families and ignores the fact that those sentenced under the law are repeat offenders who already had two serious or violent felony convictions.

At least 2,800 inmates could have their sentences reduced should Proposition 36 pass, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. That's about one-third of the state's nearly 8,900 third-strikers.

The California District Attorneys Association, which opposes the measure, projects that nearly 4,400 inmates might be eligible for re-sentencing.

The law currently requires a life sentence with a minimum term of at least 25 years in state prison for anyone convicted of any new felony who has two or more serious or violent prior felonies, although prosecutors and judges have discretion in imposing the third strike.

California's 1994 law is considered the nation's toughest because it counts residential burglary as a strike, allows offenders' juvenile records to be considered as strikes in some cases and lets the third strike be imposed for any felony.

This will be the second time California voters are being asked to modify the law. In 2004, they narrowly defeated Proposition 66, which also would have limited third strikes to serious or violent crimes.

If Proposition 36 passes, inmates whose third strike is not considered serious or violent would have two years to seek re-sentencing. Those with previous convictions for homicide or certain sexual, drug or violent crimes would be precluded.

Judges would have the discretion to reject lighter sentences for third-strikers they deem to be public safety risks.

The modified version before voters would end the headline-grabbing life sentences for offenses such as petty theft, forgery or drug possession, said Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, who supports the ballot measure. Those are the types of crimes that put Taylor, a homeless drug addict, behind bars for life for a record that included stealing a check he later used to buy a pizza.

Were it not for the Three Strikes law, Taylor would have been sentenced as a repeat offender to about eight years in prison, said Michael Romano, an attorney who directs the Stanford Three Strikes Project, which represented Taylor. But his life sentence was upheld by the state and U.S. supreme courts, despite appeals on his behalf by the Tulare County judge and prosecutor who handled his case in 1996.

The 42-year-old remains in the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad.

"They should be punished more for repeat offenses. It's just that a life sentence for minor crimes is not what voters intended," said Romano.

By contrast, he noted the basic sentence is eight years for rape and 15 years-to-life for second-degree murder.

The state district attorneys association says third-strike prosecutions for minor crimes are increasingly rare and that the existing law generally works well and helps deter crime.

About 80 percent of third strikes were imposed in the first decade after Mike Reynolds, a Fresno photographer, co-authored and campaigned for the initiative, which was supported by 72 percent of voters.

He acted after his 18-year-old daughter, Kimber, was shot to death by a repeat felon in 1992 during a purse-snatching outside a Fresno restaurant. Her killer received a nine-year prison sentence.

Fewer than 200 criminals have been sentenced for third strikes statewide in each of the last eight years, on average. During the last three years, the corrections department says an average of about 40 criminals each year were given third-strike sentences for crimes that were deemed non-serious or non-violent.

"This law works. It works with a minimal amount of actual incarcerations," Reynolds said. "Three Strikes may approach this from the threat of more like brass knuckles than a velvet glove, but the fact is the threat does act as an extraordinarily active deterrent."

Cooley, who will retire in December, said imposing life sentences for relatively minor crimes is the sort of disproportionate justice that offends most citizens, invites legal challenges and crowds state prisons.

"That's the so-called lifetime achievement award," he said. "I don't buy into that."

As of July, there were 327 third-strikers in prison whose final conviction was for petty theft. They were among 2,515 inmates serving 25-to-life for property crimes.

Another 1,345 third-strikes are incarcerated for various drug offenses. Third-strikers make up about 7 percent of California's inmate population, a proportion that increased in the last year as responsibility for lower-level offenders was shifted to counties under a new law designed to ease prison crowding and reduce costs.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office estimated that the measure could save taxpayers about $70 million annually in lower incarceration costs, with the annual savings approaching $90 million in 20 years. Reynolds predicted the savings would be more than offset by an increase in crime.