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Three-Strikes Change: Another California Initiative Working Well:

Alex Maese is an example of how mistaken critics can be when they claim, as they have for decades, that Californians are not smart or sophisticated enough for direct democracy via ballot propositions.

Maese was convicted in 1997 of possessing a fragment of a cotton ball containing 0.029 grams of heroin, then sentenced to life in prison. No court at the time saw evidence of how he was using that tiny drug dose to self-medicate post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from his service in Viet Nam.

Stanford Law School students learned of his case and in 2008 convinced a Kern County judge to release Maese on the basis of the 11 years he had already served. Having completed a residential drug rehab program, he now lives in Los Angeles.

Maese’s case and the trivial offense that triggered his harsh sentence under California’s Three-Strikes-and-You’re-Out law was typical of those that spurred voters almost precisely a year ago to pass Proposition 36 by an overwhelming 69-31 percent margin.

Now it has become clear that initiative is working well. And Proposition 36 is far from alone. The 2008 Marsy’s Law, passed as Proposition 9, today forces notification of victims and their relatives whenever there’s a bail or parole hearing for persons accused or convicted of harming them.

The 1988 Proposition 103 still keeps California car and property insurance rates below national averages. There are many more examples.

But Proposition 36, the most recent significant initiative success story, is also among the most humane measures voters have ever passed.

Designed to mitigate some of the obvious overkill spawned by the 1990s-era Three Strikes sentencing law, this initiative so far has produced the early release of more than 1,000 convicts whose third strikes were as minor as stealing a car jack from an open tow truck or shoplifting a pair of shoes for a child.

An estimated 2,000 more similar prisoners are probably in line for release in the next year or so, with hundreds more yearly now spared long prison terms for petty offenses. This is one reason there’s some hope of success for new plans to comply with federal court orders to lower prison populations.

When all the eligibles are released, Proposition 36 will be saving taxpayers more than $70 million yearly.

That’s the upshot of an autumn report from the Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The good news in this study of three-strikers released to date is that so far, they haven’t committed many new crimes. Their recidivism rate of about 2 percent is well under the statewide average of 16 percent committing new offenses within similar time periods after release.

The early results demonstrate the soundness of voters’ instincts in softening Three Strikes to make its maximum 25-years-to-life sentence apply only when the third felony conviction is for a violent or serious crime. The law also allows prisoners serving sentences now deemed excessive by the voters to seek resentencing.

The humanity of the initiative was demonstrated in the Stanford-NAACP report with several individual cases successfully pursued by law students in the lead-up to Proposition 36.

Besides Maese, there was Vincent Rico, sentenced to life in 1998 for stealing children’s shoes from a Ross Dress for Less store in Los Angeles. He once again lives with his wife and works full-time. And there was Gregory Taylor, who broke into a church soup kitchen in 1997 and took food, getting a life sentence for his trouble. Released in 2010, he helps manage a sober-living community.

It’s probably too early to know how many similar success stories will emerge from the early releases spawned by Proposition 36. Or how many failures there will be.

But early signs look positive, with judges having granted resentencing under the new law to almost all those requesting it, as lawyers make their way through the least controversial cases first.

The bottom line: If those released get substance abuse counseling, mental health services and transitional housing, there’s every reason to expect the early results to hold up.

in Opinion
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