Calif. High Court Upholds Lengthy Sentences in ‘Three Strikes’ Cases

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Judges can refuse to shorten prison sentences for inmates they deem a danger to the public despite sentencing reduction laws recently passed by voters, a divided California Supreme Court ruled.

The 4-3 ruling attempts to settle the question of how to handle inmates that could be eligible for re-sentencing or release after California voters passed a series of prison reform measures related to the state’s tough “Three Strikes” law.

The Three Strikes law allows courts to imprison those convicted of a serious felony for a term twice as long as the crime usually calls for if they commit a second felony.

The first of those measures was Proposition 36, or the Three Strikes Reform Act. Passed in 2012, Proposition 36 aimed to address California’s overcrowded prison system by allowing inmates serving lengthy sentences under the Three Strikes law to be re-sentenced if the third strike was not a serious or violent crime.

Under the law, courts could deny re-sentencing if “the court, in its discretion, determines that resentencing the petitioner would pose an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.”

Two years later, voters passed Proposition 47, a 2014 ballot initiative that reduced certain drug and theft-related felonies to misdemeanors and gave some inmates serving time for such offenses a shot at lesser sentences or even release, but judges could deny a reduction if it “would result in an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.”

The case reviewed by the state’s high court centered on the appeals of two inmates serving life sentences under the Three Strikes law, who were both turned down for re-sentencing based on their criminal histories. David Valencia’s included kidnapping, making criminal threats, and hitting his wife so hard that her head needed to be closed with staples. In 2013, a Tuolumne County judge denied his petition for re-sentencing, saying, “―I cannot grant this. I just feel that he is a danger. He is an unreasonable risk to public safety. And, in particular, to the women he’s around.”

Clifford Paul Chaney also unsuccessfully sought re-sentencing in 2013, after three felony drunk driving convictions. An Amador county judge said Chaney would probably drink and drive again.

Writing for the majority in Monday’s supreme court decision, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said the scope of Proposition 47 was likely not intended to benefit those already serving 25-years-to-life for violent felonies.

“If Proposition 47 had truly intended to amend the Three Strikes Reform Act in order to allow additional three strike inmates, who by definition, have records for multiple serious or violent felonies to be resentenced, one would expect its drafters to have mentioned or referred to such a purpose and intention in the measure’s preamble. They did not,” she wrote.

“Instead, Proposition 47 explicitly assured voters that the sentences of persons convicted of dangerous crimes and various sex crimes would not change,” Cantil-Sakuaye contined. “In describing to voters Proposition 47’s title and summary, the Attorney General failed to note or identify any effect the measure might have in facilitating the release of serious or violent recidivist felons. In describing to voters Proposition 47’s effect on public safety, the criminal justice system, and fiscal policy, the Legislative Analyst also failed to note or identify any effect the measure might have in facilitating the release of serious or violent recidivist felons.”

Cantil-Sakauye was joined by Justices Leondra Kruger, Ming Chin and Carol Corrigan.

In their dissents, Justice Goodwin Liu and Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar said the judges should have applied Proposition 47’s more restrictive definition of a public safety risk to the appeals, and Justice Kathryn Werdegar concurred.

“The court says nothing indicates the voters intended or knew that Proposition 47‘s definition of that term would apply to Proposition 36. Nothing, that is, except the unambiguous words they enacted, which we must presume the voters duly considered against the backdrop of existing laws,” Liu wrote, adding that the majority’s ruling “crosses the line from statutory interpretation to judicial legislation.”

“When the voters enacted Proposition 47, they spoke clearly on how widely its re-sentencing criteria would apply,” Liu said. “We cannot now tell inmates like David Valencia and Clifford Chaney, whose third strike was neither serious nor violent, that what Proposition 47 plainly says is not what the voters really meant.”

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