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New '3 Strikes' law varies by county
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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Majorities in every California county voted last fall to scale back the state's Three Strikes law so thousands of inmates serving life sentences for relatively minor third offenses would have the chance to be set free.

Five months later, there is no such unanimity among counties when it comes to carrying out the voters' wishes.

Whether a third-strike felon eventually will gain freedom varies greatly depending on the county that sent him away, according to an Associated Press analysis of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation data.

In San Bernardino County, which has the second highest number of eligible inmates, 29 percent of the 291 Three Strikes inmates have been granted release under Proposition 36. But in Los Angeles and San Diego counties, just 6 percent of the nearly 1,300 eligible inmates have had their sentences reduced so far.

Statewide, 15 percent of 2,847 eligible inmates have been resentenced.

Defense attorneys blame prosecutors in some counties for opposing inmate petitions for resentencing even in cases where the prisoner clearly qualifies for early release under the language of Proposition 36. Those oppositions require time-consuming court hearings and written arguments.

"We are frustrated that some DAs are stubbornly refusing to follow the law," said Michael Romano, who authored Proposition 36 and runs the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School. The project represents about 20 inmates seeking resentencing.

Prosecutors say a decision to set repeat felons free should not be made in haste.

"These people aren't doing life sentences because they are nice people," said San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Greg Walden, who handles the petitions for his office. "I don't want to make a mistake and then later have to apologize to a family later victimized by one of these people let out."

Proposition 36 was backed by 68 percent of voters. It modified the state's 1996 Three Strikes law that stipulated a life sentence for a third felony conviction even if it was for a low-level offense such as stealing a bicycle.

The percentage of felons sentenced to a third strike has varied by county, in large part because of the different philosophies among local prosecutors. Nevertheless, the Three Strikes law contributed to soaring prison costs and overcrowding that led to federal takeover of the state system.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office said Proposition 36 could save the state $70 million to $90 million a year.

Under the new law, inmates file applications for early release in the counties where they committed their last crime. Some are representing themselves, filling out legal forms in pencil, while others are getting help from public defenders, law school students and law firms that have agreed to handle the petitions for free.

Dale Curtis Gaines is an example of those who can benefit from Proposition 36. A two-time convicted burglar, he was destined to spend the rest of his life in prison after he was caught with computer equipment stolen from the American Cancer Society and sentenced in 1998.

His lawyers, who say Gaines is physically and mentally disabled, filed a resentencing application after the initiative passed. He was set free in March from the state's medical prison in Vacaville after the Sonoma County district attorney dropped objections that the 55-year-old remains a threat to society.

Local prosecutors decide how aggressively to oppose the applications for reduced sentences, and judges make their decisions based on a variety of factors, including an inmate's disciplinary record while in prison. Inmates with violent prison records who would otherwise qualify for early release can be kept behind bars if a judge finds they are still a risk to public safety.

The result is an uneven application of the law, as illustrated by two similar counties in the San Joaquin Valley: Stanislaus County has resentenced just two of 50 eligible three-strikers, while Tulare County has resentenced 71 percent of its 42 eligible inmates.

"A lot of these inmates weren't told the whole story," said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William Ryan, who is assigned to decide the more than 1,000 petitions filed in that court, where just 50 have been granted resentencing so far. "A lot of inmates thought the prison doors would automatically open. But it's a process, and I want to be very careful."