Dozens of inmates from North Coast expected to seek shorter prison terms

Passage of the ballot measure softening the state's landmark three-strikes sentencing law has touched off a flurry of legal activity from North Coast defense lawyers seeking reduced punishments for career criminals serving life in prison.

By a wide margin, voters on Nov. 6 approved Proposition 36, amending the 1994 law targeting habitual offenders by requiring 25-to-life commitment offenses be violent or serious rather than just any felony.

The change opens the door for repeat violators previously locked away for relatively minor third offenses to petition local courts for resentencing.

Some will get reduced punishments while others will be released from prison right away because they have already served enough time.

Michael Romano, a Stanford University professor who helped write Prop. 36, said it will help bring penalties in line with crimes while saving tax dollars and relieving prison overcrowding.

"I think we all agree it's unfair to sentence people to life for non-violent, non-serious crimes," Romano said.

The number of criminals eligible for resentencing in Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma counties is relatively low, in part because there's little political will to pursue life sentences in less serious cases.

According to a preliminary state prison estimate, seven people are eligible for resentencing in Sonoma County, one in Mendocino County and five in Lake County.

Other agencies said there could be more than a dozen more in Sonoma County alone, which as of June 30 had 224 people in prison on a second or third strike.

Statewide, as many as 3,000 criminals could be eligible for reduced sentences.

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