By Jack Leonard
A Los Angeles County judge responsible for reconsidering the life prison terms of more than 1,000 offenders sentenced under the state's three-strikes law began the process Monday at a hearing where he reduced the punishments for five inmates convicted of relatively minor crimes.
Among those given shorter sentences was a 74-year-old who has served more than 15 years for possessing $10 worth of drugs and an 81-year-old behind bars for more than 17 years for stealing dozens of packs of cigarettes.
The hearing came three months after voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 36, which softened California's tough three-strikes law and allowed many inmates sentenced for non-serious and nonviolent offenses to ask for shorter prison terms. In Los Angeles County, the hearings are expected to continue through at least much of this year.
Prosecutors who had reviewed the prison records and criminal histories of the five inmates argued that they were suitable for release and that none posed an "unreasonable risk of danger to public safety." Under the new law, judges must reduce the sentences for eligible inmates unless doing so would endanger the public.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Beth Widmark, however, argued that the inmates should nevertheless be placed under the supervision of probation officers after they are released. Since the men have already served longer terms than their new sentences, they will be released from prison in the next week or so. Widmark cited the inmates' lengthy criminal histories and noted that they had each spent more than a decade behind bars.
Judge William C. Ryan acknowledged that such supervision would probably enhance public safety. But he said he could not legally place the offenders on supervision because they had already served well beyond their new terms and any period of supervision that would normally have followed their prison stint.
Widmark expressed concern about one inmate in particular. Randall Martinez's third strike, she noted, was for stealing four locks worth less than $70 from a hardware store in 1999. But the prosecutor also recited a long list of his prison violations for drug use, including possession of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine. Last year, she said, Martinez was caught with a syringe.
"Does he need supervision? Absolutely," Widmark said. "I don't disagree with you," the judge responded.
Throughout California, about 2,800 prisoners are eligible to ask for reduced sentences, with an estimated 1,050 from Los Angeles County.
Mike Reynolds, whose daughter's 1992 murder led him to spearhead the creation of the three-strikes law, decried the release of resentenced prisoners without supervision.
"No one is following what they're going to be doing," he said. "I see it as a very dangerous precedent."
Michael Romano, who helped write the proposition and runs a Stanford Law School project that represents inmates convicted of minor third strikes, said state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation data show that inmates eligible for resentencing are less likely to re-offend than the vast majority of other prisoners. Romano said the success of such inmates will depend on whether counties can provide them the drug treatment, housing and job training resources they need following release.
"We want people to succeed," he said.
Unlike some counties where many courts handle such hearings, Los Angeles County has assigned a single judge -- Ryan -- to determine all of the re-sentencing requests, partly in an effort to ensure that the decisions are consistent.
Ryan's court has been deluged with more than 1,000 requests, with the first arriving a day before the Nov. 6 vote. On a recent day, in the office of a court research attorney who reviews the cases before they get to Ryan, thick stacks of court files and requests covered the carpet. More than 300 of the requests were filed by inmates, the rest by attorneys.
"They came in like a hurricane," Ryan said in a recent interview. "I am taking everything, even if it's in crayon, as long as it has the right information."
Ryan said he wanted a careful vetting of any potentially dangerous inmates before deciding whether they should be resentenced. Prosecutors, he noted, have been reviewing the prison records of those who are asking to be resentenced to determine whether they were violent behind bars.
In a recent interview, Widmark said prosecutors have visited prisons to review files for themselves. On a recent vacation, she said, she made a detour to the California Men's Colony prison in San Luis Obispo to review the file of Robert Benavidez.
In 1997, Benavidez was caught by Long Beach police with a balloon containing heroin and cocaine that he had just bought for $10. His previous strikes included a 1982 robbery in which he and others pushed a man in a store parking lot and a 1984 burglary from the motel room of a man he believed owed him money.
At his sentencing hearing, the prosecutor cited a lengthy rap sheet dating to 1955, including an arrest as a juvenile for rape, according to a court transcript of the hearing. In sentencing him to 25 years to life, Judge James B. Pierce said he believed Benavidez would continue offending.
Widmark said there was nothing violent in Benavidez's recent past or his prison record, which included discipline for using a racial slur and an allegation that he stole kitchen grease. At the same time, Benavidez had been commended for his participation with an Alcoholics Anonymous program in prison and had earned excellent work reviews. A correctional officer wrote that Benavidez, now 74, was respectful and was ready for release, adding that he "is part of the small percentage of men who have realized the error of their ways."
Benavidez was given a new sentence of four years.
Among the other third-strikers resentenced Monday was Richard Packard, who was serving 25 years to life for stealing 45 packs of cigarettes from an Albertson's store in Temple City. His previous strikes included five counts of robbery with a gun, the latest in 1983. A probation officer on his last case in 1995 wrote that he "is not viewed as a dangerous or violent person," according to a court record.
His attorney on Monday told the judge that there were attempts to find an appropriate convalescent home for Packard, 81, once he is released.
Packard's sentence was reduced to seven years.
At the same time, the district attorney's office is opposing a shorter sentence for Edward Jerome Lujan. Lujan was sentenced in 1995 to 25 years to life for pilfering $55.90 worth of socks, shirts and other clothes from a Pick'n Save store.
Prosecutors noted in a court filing that a prison investigation concluded that Lujan, 50, was responsible for slashing another inmate's throat with a razor blade in 2011. The victim required "immediate lifesaving medical attention," prosecutors said.
A hearing to consider Lujan's request to be resentenced has yet to be scheduled.
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