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Regional Interests

New State Funding Boosts Prosecutor-Led Resentencing Efforts in California

A new state-funded program encourages district attorneys to resentence some incarcerated people serving long prison terms that many now consider excessive.

Nine DAs throughout California — including those in San Francisco, Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties — will receive a portion of an $18 million pot earmarked in the recently approved state budget to help identify inmates who are no longer deemed a public safety risk, but still have years left behind bars.

“Most prosecutors agree that if a person has transformed their life and there’s no justification for having them incarcerated, then they should be out,” said Hillary Blout, executive director of For The People, a sentencing reform group that is working with the DAs to help identify eligible inmates.

“That prosecutor can bring the case back to the court and essentially say, ‘Your honor, our agency asked you to send this person away and we’re here now asking you to send this person home,’ ” Blout said.

The funding is intended to implement Assembly Bill 2942, a 2018 law that Blout helped draft, which allows district attorneys to recommend that courts reconsider old cases and issue new, lighter sentences — including for people convicted of violent crimes years ago.

Some 75 incarcerated people in California have so far been resentenced under the law, according to Blout. In most cases, it’s led to their near-immediate release from prison and reentry back into their communities on parole.

That includes about 50 people from San Francisco alone, according to Arcelia Hurtado, chief of the post-conviction unit in the San Francisco DA’s Office. She said her staff is working with the Public Defender’s Office and community groups to review the sentences of the nearly 200 people from San Francisco who have already served over 20 years — about a third of the current prison population from the city. Some of those cases, she added, are women who committed violent crimes against their abusers.

“Many years ago, courts just didn’t hear that information or just didn’t give it proper weight,” Hurtado said, noting that her office will likely use the new state funding to hire a dedicated team to review the cases and develop a strong reentry program for people who are released.

The state’s investment in the program signals a shift away from the harsh sentencing policies of past decades, when laws like mandatory minimums and three strikes sparked an explosion in the prison population, mushrooming from about 50,000 inmates in 1985 to a peak of 173,000 in 2006.

“Our legacy in California has not been a great one in terms of our investment in building prisons and then filling them with people,” Blout said, noting the disproportionate impact that’s had on people of color.

But in recent years, the state has advanced a slew of criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing the prison population.

“But by and large, with all of those efforts, it historically had been prosecutors that were seen as the barrier to really being able to see the promise of these initiatives,” said Blout, who worked for years as a prosecutor in the San Francisco DA’s Office. “I think that if we’re ever going to get our system to a place where we are effectively implementing all of the different laws at our disposal, we have to have one of the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system involved, and that’s prosecutors.”

The nine DA’s offices in the pilot program, which also include Los Angeles, Merced, San Diego, Humboldt, Riverside and Yolo counties, were chosen to reflect California’s diverse geography and demographics, Blout said, and to show that the model can be applied across the state and the country. In just the last year, two other states — Oregon and Illinois — have followed California’s lead, passing similar resentencing laws.

After AB 2942 went into effect in 2019, Blout’s organization began working directly with the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office to begin reviewing cases and develop risk-assessment protocols.

Kennard Love, from San Jose, was one of the inmates who quickly rose to the top of the list of eligible participants. In 2007, at the age of 19, he was convicted of multiple armed robberies and sentenced to 28 years in prison.

At San Quentin State Prison, he earned associate’s degrees in business, behavioral and social science, and math and joined The Last Mile program, which teaches computer coding to prisoners.

Working with Silicon Valley De-Bug, a criminal justice reform organization that helps support incarcerated people, Blout’s group advocated for Love, and in December 2020, the Santa Clara DA’s Office recommended to a court that he be resentenced. Within days, he walked out prison, on parole.

“He decided to make a change in his life,” said Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeffrey Rosen, who oversaw the resentencing effort. “I want to reward and incentivize other inmates to make that change, because that change is good for them and it’s good for our community, because somebody who’s now not a criminal, not robbing, not stealing means that there are fewer crime victims.”

Rosen’s office has successfully petitioned to have 12 people resentenced since 2019 – a relatively modest figure that he said reflects the time it takes to carefully evaluate cases and do thorough risk assessments to guarantee public safety. And despite the inherently politically fraught business of releasing people from prison early, particularly those convicted of violent offenses, Rosen said he hasn’t yet faced much pushback.

“Of course, this isn’t something we do lightly. We talk to victims’ families,” Rosen said. “And sometimes victims are very supportive of the early release. Sometimes they don’t care so much one way or another, they’ve moved on. And sometimes they’re concerned. I haven’t had a victim say, ‘Oh, absolutely not. That person should rot in prison forever.’ ”

The resentencing program, Rosen added, is a validation of his job as a prosecutor.

“Our commitment is to do justice. And it doesn’t end after the conviction,” he said. “And while there certainly are cases we prosecuted where we think a person was not sentenced to enough time in prison, certainly we must acknowledge that there’s cases where someone was sentenced to too long in prison. And this law is an opportunity for us to redress that and to provide a fuller justice.”

Copyright 2021 KQED