Three-strikes and three rocks of crack cocaine earned Eugene Tate a sentence of 25 to life, after already earning two strikes on his record for 1998 convictions for burglary and robbery.

He had a drug habit, and he made mistakes. But he couldn’t believe that he would now be facing the same sentence as if he had been convicted of murder.

In prison, Tate sang in the choir on Sundays and for monthly memorial services. He stopped taking drugs and smoking. He attended Bible study and computer classes. And he never stopped hoping he might one day be a free man again.

After fifteen years Californians agreed that the state’s “three-strikes” law went beyond the bounds of justice with its life sentences for nonviolent offenders. Voters passed Proposition 36 in November, offering about 2,700 prisoners around the state serving life sentences for drug possession, theft and other crimes, the chance to apply for resentencing.

In January, a judge resentenced Tate to eight years in prison. Since he’d already served almost twice that, he was released Jan. 17.

He’s spent the last few weeks working to get a permanent ID and setting up MediCal for his health problems, which include congestive heart failure and rheumatoid arthritis. He spent several nights in Santa Ana’s National Guard Armory and is now working with a local nonprofit on a more permanent home.

In each resentencing hearing, a judge must determine whether a prisoner presents an unreasonable risk to public safety. Lawyers in the District Attorney’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office comb through records looking at criminal histories and any other evidence that might give a clue as to how the prisoner would act if released. Prison disciplinary records receive particular attention, said Lawrence Volk of the Public Defender’s Office.

Tate received one write-up while in prison, for growing a goatee.

“His performance in custody was basically outstanding,” Volk said. “For all intents and purposes, he looks like he’s been rehabilitated.”

Before Prop. 36 passed, Ted Burnett, of the District Attorney’s Office, said judges had enough discretion to apply three strikes only to criminals with serious records who were dangerous. When petitions for resentencing first started coming to the office, Burnett said he looked carefully for cases of injustice.

A proposition to reform three-strikes – requiring the third strike to be violent or serious – came to voters in 2004, but received support from only about 47 percent. Prop. 36 was written similarly, but prohibited convicted murderers, rapists and child molesters from seeking lower sentences. In November, it passed easily with 69 percent in favor. Supporters trumpeted the reform’s savings of $70 million a year to the state as it reduced its inmate population. For many, however, the moral argument proved most persuasive.

The new version of the law punishes people according to their crimes, Mark Brown of the Public Defender’s Office said. He hopes voters, courts and attorneys continue to look for justice in sentencing. Juvenile offenders with life sentences without parole could use attention, he said.

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Source: “‘Three-strikes’ offenders get another chance,” February 26, 2013.