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Prop. 57: Who should decide how long criminal sentences are?

There are potential changes coming to California's fixed-term system for criminal sentences. On the ballot this fall is Prop. 57, which calls for reducing sentence lengths and making early parole possible for people convicted of certain felonies that the law doesn't categorize as violent.

Prop. 57 would also enhance the authority that correctional administrators have to give sentence reductions based on good behavior in prison. And it would take away the unilateral ability that prosecutors have to charges juveniles as adults.

The key part of Prop. 57, however, is a provision that could result in shorter sentences for thousands of people who were convicted of crimes that aren't classified as violent under the law. In this post, we will use a Q & A format to address some of the issues at stake.

How many inmates may be eligible for a shorter sentence because they were convicted of crimes that aren't classified as violent?

Even after several years of federal court orders to reduce crowding, California's prison system still has about 129,000 prisoners.

About 7,500 of those prisoners would be eligible to be considered for parole if Prop. 57 passes. This is according to the nonpartisan fiscal analyst at the California Legislature.

How many prisoners would actually be released?

The governor's office contends that most of the 7,500 inmates who would be eligible for early release already are having their cases looked at by the parole board annually. This review is due to requirements imposed by the federal court that is overseeing California's prison crowding lawsuit.

The governor's office therefore reasons that only about 500 to 750 inmates a year are likely to be released under Prop. 57.

What type of crimes did these prisoners commit?

The crimes are classified as nonviolent under California law. A good example is burglary. Under current law, a sentence for burglary can be increased greatly in length if the offender had a previous burglary conviction. And if someone had two previous convictions and the convictions were for serious or violent crimes, that would mean facing 25 years to life in prison under California's three-strikes law.

Prop. 57 would change this. Someone convicted of burglary would be eligible to go before the parole board in six years. And it would be up to the parole board to decide whether to release the person or whether public safety required continued incarceration.

Time for decisions

Whether Prop. 57 will pass on Election Day remains to be seen. Governor Brown is all for it. So are many people who believe that California's sentencing system has imposed excessively long prison terms. But county prosecutors and others are opposed to Prop. 57, citing public safety concerns.

Regardless of the electoral outcome, if you face charges or have already been convicted, it is important to protect your rights. You can do this most effectively with an experienced defense attorney on your side.

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