Pubdate: Sun, 14 Dec 2014
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2014 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Note: Seldom prints LTEs from outside it's circulation area.
Authors: Kristina Davis and Dana Littlefield


Superior Court has received nearly 10,000 petitions to reduce 
felonies to misdemeanors; more in wings

Alisa Griego still had two weeks to serve on her sentence. She had 
spent half a year in a county jail for stealing from a store, one of 
a handful of convictions in a past filled with unhealthy 
relationships and drug addiction.

But when she appeared before a judge late last month, she was told 
her felony conviction was now a misdemeanor, that she'd served her 
time. She was out of custody by the next morning, one of more than a 
dozen offenders in San Diego County who have been resentenced and 
released in the wake of Proposition 47.

On the books for more than a month now, the measure has jolted 
California's criminal justice system as judges, prosecutors and 
defense attorneys strain under the weight of reducing the low-level 
felony convictions of potentially millions of people across the state 
within the next three years.

The law allows people convicted of certain felonies to ask for their 
crimes to be downgraded to misdemeanors, no matter when they were 
committed. Those crimes include simple drug possession and some 
property crimes valued at less than $950, such as shoplifting, theft, 
bad check writing and forgery.

"The retroactivity makes it so huge, it creates a dramatic amount of 
work for the public defender and district attorney for the next three 
years," said Randy Mize, a chief deputy in the county Public 
Defender's Office. "It's an amazing proposition in terms of changing 
the criminal justice system."

The law's intent is to put fewer low-level, nonviolent offenders 
behind bars, and to instead funnel those prison costs - up to $200 
million annually - to treatment and prevention programs to reduce the 
underlying causes of such crimes.

The law, passed by voters on Nov. 4, took effect immediately. By last 
week, the San Diego Superior Court had received about 9,800 petitions 
requesting misdemeanor reductions - the vast majority representing 
some 2,600 offenders in jail and prison or on probation.

That group has been the first priority, and those requests could be 
sorted out as early as the end of January, prosecutors say.

So far, about 250 cases have been settled, and about a dozen, maybe 
two dozen, offenders have been released from custody, authorities estimate.

The requests are usually screened first by the Public Defender's 
Office, sent to the presiding judge's downtown courtroom, then 
referred to the District Attorney's Office for further evaluation.

The District Attorney's Office must go through each petition and 
research the offender's background to verify if the person is even 
qualified for relief under Proposition 47. To be eligible for 
resentencing, an offender can't have a criminal history that includes 
any from a list of about 80 serious crimes, such as murder, sex 
crimes against children, torture and kidnapping for ransom.

Thus far, only about half of the requests for resentencing that 
prosecutors have reviewed have been eligible under Proposition 47, 
officials said.

"This is a big dump on the DA. They are working very hard to get 
through these petitions," Mize said.

Prosecutors are also looking to see if certain offenders appear so 
likely to commit another offense that they should remain behind bars 
under the original sentence - challenges allowed under the law.

There have been no challenges on those grounds yet. However, 
prosecutors have identified at least two convicts whose backgrounds 
have raised concern and will be further assessed for danger, said 
Chief Deputy District Attorney David Greenberg.

One is a convict who has been deemed a so-called "mentally disordered 
offender" - an offender who has served his time in jail but has 
remained locked up at the state mental hospital because the court 
considers him dangerous, Greenberg said. The man had originally been 
charged with robbery, but he was allowed in 1998 to plead down to 
grand theft against a person - a charge that is now eligible for a 
misdemeanor reduction under Proposition 47.

Once the requests from those in custody are dealt with, there's 
another much larger group of ex-convicts who have served their 
sentences but want their records changed to show they are convicted 
of misdemeanors rather than felonies. That number is as high as 
198,000 people countywide who might qualify for misdemeanor 
reductions dating back to 1990. "That's mind-boggling," Mize said of 
the volume.

The law gives people three years to file their requests.

Presiding San Diego Superior Court Judge David Danielsen, who is 
shepherding the cases through the court, said he expects to receive 
3,000 cases every Tuesday for the foreseeable future before the 
volume starts to taper off.

"We're taking a little bit of time every day to process whatever 
comes through," Danielsen said. He said 350 hours of staff time were 
devoted to Proposition 47 cases last month.

That's quite a burden, considering the courts are already strained 
for money and manpower.

"I have a court that needs 1,700 employees to do its job well," the 
judge said. "We have historically done it with 1,600. We're now 
looking at under 1,200 this year because of budget cuts."

Danielsen said he and others are still trying to figure out what 
resources will be needed to handle the workload.

The squeeze is being felt across the state, with each county 
developing its own system to process the misdemeanor reduction 
requests. Some have been able to respond to the workload more quickly 
than others, said Shelley Curran, senior manager in the Judicial 
Council's Criminal Justice Service Office.

"We are having conversations in earnest with the Department of 
Finance in the hopes that we'll be able to secure funds for the trial 
courts," Curran said, explaining that money would be used to pay 
staffing costs.

However, neither the governor nor the Legislature is under any 
obligation to provide additional funding to implement Proposition 47.

"The courts are going to do the work but the fact of the matter is 
other work is not going to get done," Curran said.

Authorities are also grappling with how to make sure certain 
offenders get the supervision they need after release. Just because 
their crimes are now a misdemeanor doesn't make them less at risk for 
reoffending or need less help transitioning to the real world, public 
safety officials say.

Griego was among the first inmates to be released under Proposition 
47 in the county.

Because she falls into a group of offenders affected by the separate 
public safety realignment law - offenders who served their prison 
time in county jail - she will be supervised by probation officers 
for a year after her release. It also means she will be provided 
treatment options to rebuild her life, paid for by probation under 
state realignment funds. It's a huge relief, she said.

"I did my time, but in my mind and thoughts, I'm not ready (to be 
released). I feel like I'm being thrown out there to the wolves," the 
38-year-old mother of three said in an interview. "I need those services."

She enrolled herself in McAlister Women's Recovery Center for 
outpatient care and is four months away from graduating from 
cosmetology school. She hopes to work as a hairstylist.

Many of the other offenders who will get resentenced and get out 
early won't have the same opportunities and instead will be released 
with no supervision whatsoever - a concern that public safety 
officials raised before voters approved the law.

"Those offenders who may be high risk and high needs," said Chief 
Probation Officer Mack Jenkins. "... I no longer can supervise them 
nor make sure they're engaged in the services they need."

The law calls for the money saved in prison population reductions to 
help fund such services, but those savings won't be realized for at 
least another year, and it will take some time after that to 
distribute the money among programs.

For years, many lower-level offenders have been able to get 
rehabilitative services by participating in one of the specialty 
courts: drug court, re-entry court, mandatory supervision court and 
veteran's court. Judge Peter Gallagher, who runs drug court at the 
central courthouse in downtown San Diego, said about 80 percent of 
the people who graduate from the 18-month program remain clean and 
sober for the next five years.

Judges have expressed concern that the passage of Proposition 47 
would depopulate some of those programs by taking away some of the 
incentive for participants to stick with it. Those with felony 
convictions know that if they fail to follow the treatment plan, they 
could be sent to jail or prison. If that felony becomes a 
misdemeanor, there's less of a hammer hanging over the participant's head.

"The word on the street is, 'Oh, OK. It's just going to be a 
misdemeanor now. That's no big deal,' " the judge said.

Since Proposition 47 passed, Gallagher said he's lost five or six 
participants who quit the program. And about 10, who had been 
screened but not yet accepted into drug court, decided not to enroll.

"I expect to lose a few more in the next couple of weeks," he said.


Effects of Proposition 47

County jail inmates and probationers: About 1,800 have filed requests 
for certain felonies to be reduced to misdemeanors and have asked to 
be resentenced so far. About a dozen of those have been released in 
the past few weeks.

State inmates: About 800 from the county have filed similar requests, 
although state prison officials estimate only about 242 of those 
currently in custody are eligible.

Public Defender's Office: Lawyers are continuing to file requests for 
misdemeanor reductions from inmates, as well as people who have long 
completed their sentences but want their records changed.

District Attorney's Office: Prosecutors must review each petition to 
make sure the offender is eligible and doesn't have a serious 
criminal background.

City Attorney's Office: With certain felonies now misdemeanors, such 
as simple drug possession and some property crimes under $950, deputy 
city attorneys in San Diego are expecting 3,000 more misdemeanor cases a year.

Superior courts: Judges must approve each misdemeanor reduction and 
resentence each offender - each of whom might have multiple cases - 
and are concerned about the workload given continued budget cuts.

Sources: District Attorney's Office; Public Defender's Office; City 
Attorney's Office; California Department of Corrections and 
Rehabilitation; San Diego Superior Court
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