Some Calif. inmates could see reduced sentences under new state program
Advocates hope the new pilot program will ultimately lead to more prison closures
By Abbie Lauten-Scrivner
MERCED, Calif. — Merced is of nine California counties chosen to participate in a pilot program that aims to bring justice to people who may be serving excessive prison sentences by returning them home to their community.
The California County Resentencing Pilot Program was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom as part of California's 2021 Budget, allocating $18 million to county governments for prosecutor-initiated resentencing.
Merced County is slated to begin the program in September and expected to receive over $1 million to cover costs associated with the pilot program, which is set to run through Jan. 31, 2025.
The program stems from initiatives catalyzed by the Oakland-based organization For the People, which in 2018 worked to pass the nation's first law allowing prosecutors to reassess sentences via state Assembly Bill 2942.
The law has helped return about 75 individuals from prisons back to their homes.
"I don't think there's a prosecutor out there that doesn't have one case they'd like to bring back," said For the People Founder and Executive Director Hillary Blout. "As a former prosecutor, I felt that it's our responsibility."
Merced pilot program is part of a statewide approach
Blout was previously a prosecutor with the San Francisco District Attorney's Office when Vice President Kamala Harris was its elected district attorney.
During that time, Blout said she witnessed issues within the criminal justice system that needed to be changed. She saw an opportunity for prosecutors to be involved.
That led Blout to form For the People and eventually get the first prosecutor-led resentencing law on the books in California. The following year a similar law passed in the state of Washington, and the organization is working with 10 other states across the U.S. to adopt prosecutor-initiated resentencing, Blout said.
These resentencing efforts align with a larger statewide strategy by Newsom's administration to reform sentencing and begin closing prisons. The California Legislature saw AB 2942 as another lever that could be utilized to eventually close more prisons throughout the state, Blout said.
The governor recently announced plans to close Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy in September and California Correctional Center in Susanville in June 2022. The closures are anticipated to cut costs by about $272 million annually.
The state budget projects that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will spend $112,691 on each incarcerated individual this fiscal year, marking an increase of nearly $10,000 from the prior fiscal year.
"There's so much interest and motivation in trying to close prisons in our state because of how much state taxpayers are spending to keep people there," Blout said.
Although AB 2942 has been law for a couple years, Blout said she has found that many California counties were not aware of it. The pilot provides a financial investment for counties to assign a dedicated person to do the work and hopefully spread the word about prosecutor-initiated resentencing, she said.
Having developed the process where prosecutors reexamine unjust or excessive sentences, For the People is acting as budget sponsor to the pilot program. The eight other participating counties are Los Angeles, Santa Clara, San Francisco, Riverside, Contra Costa, San Diego, Yolo and Humboldt.
Given the diversity of demographics throughout California counties and prison populations, the program is geared to provide local prosecutors with discretion in identifying identify types of cases and criteria that are appropriate for that jurisdiction's constituents.
Local officials were only recently given the news that Merced County was selected. The state's varying county demographics are in part why Merced was chosen for the program, since it represents the geographic center of the state as well as a medium-sized population.
Who will qualify?
Chief Deputy District Attorney Stacey McReynolds said that the logistics of how the program will best fit in Merced County are currently being sorted out.
Officials must put significant thought into what case parameters and types of crimes will be considered for resentencing, she said, as well as ensure that justice isn't undone for any families of victims.
"Our goal is to benefit the community in terms of protection, but also in terms of doing the right thing in the right situation and making sure the community understands that we care about everybody," McReynolds said of the task.
The pilot involves the district attorney and public defender's offices of each participating county.
Community-based organizations that are experienced with incarcerated people and their support networks may be participate, too.
The Merced County District Attorney's Office will be working closely with the Public Defender's Office to examine the types of sentences and types of people serving those sentences.
"It's a matter of looking at what people have done to better themselves and not just looking at what their acts were 20 years ago," McReynolds said.
The California Legislature selected the RAND Corporation to serve as evaluator of the program. Each district attorney's office will be required to record and report data, including challenges to implementation, the total number of individuals resentenced and the demographic information of candidates.
The program will generate two preliminary reports and one final evaluation, with an assessment sent to the state legislature. The reports will allow for comparison between how the program was implemented in different counties.
These reports will be instrumental in showing how to improve and scale up the program throughout the state, hopefully leading to closing more prisons, which Blount believes is where the real financial and social benefits lie.
The data gathered at the end of the pilot, Blout hopes, will also shed light on hidden benefits and cost savings gained when formerly incarcerated people reenter society. A majority of the individuals that For the People works with have done substantial work to build healthy coping tools and support networks for reentry.
"The other thing that we're hopeful for is that we will be able to learn exactly what the benefits are to beginning people home and reuniting them with their families and communities," Blout said.
"When you bring somebody home, and now they're working full time, they're enabling their partner to maybe work full time, they're paying taxes, they're building up their one money toward retirement — what is that cost we're getting back?"
(c)2021 the Merced Sun-Star (Merced, Calif.)