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

Published: Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 6:47 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 6:47 p.m.

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.

Among the first to go before a North Coast judge will be Jeffrey Michael Porter, 49, a Sonoma County homeless man serving 27 years to life in prison for his 1999 car theft conviction.

His lawyer, interim Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi, has asked that he be brought back from the state prison in Soledad for a Dec. 5 hearing in which she will argue for his immediate release.

She said his previous strikes were minor burglaries that happened as he struggled with drug addiction, she said.

“I think he's the poster child for Prop 36,” said Pozzi. “He's never committed a crime of violence.”

Another man who will seek a reduction in Sonoma County is Sammie Lee Ford, 39, who was sentenced to 25 to life in 2003 for breaking into two jewelry stores at Petaluma Outlet Mall.

His criminal career includes strikes for residential robbery and participation in a South Central Los Angeles drive-by shooting 20 years ago. In the latter case, he was convicted of manslaughter instead of murder, making him eligible under the new law, said his lawyer, Jeff Mitchell.

He could be transported from state prison in Wasco for a resentencing hearing around Jan. 1.

“He's done enough time to be released,” Mitchell said. “Even under the theoretical maximum of 12 years. He's served it.”

Another Sonoma County three-striker is Orlando Johnson, 46, who got 25 to life in 2009 for stealing a car in Petaluma. Like the others, he has an extensive rap sheet including out-of-county convictions.

Pozzi said he would likely be among the first wave to apply for resentencing. A court date had not been set.

Details about other Sonoma County cases were not available.

In Mendocino County, Jason Frick, 38 of McKinleyville is the only inmate eligible for a new sentence, said Mike Geniella, a district attorney spokesman.

Frick received 25 to life last year in connection with a standoff with Mendocino County SWAT officers in which he pleaded guilty to possession of pipe bombs and being a felon with a weapon.

At the time of his arrest, he was a fugitive from Humboldt County where he was wanted on suspicion of assault, stalking, burglary, drugs and having a gun in a school zone.

He used a bomb to keep officers at bay for 11 hours and fired a shotgun into a ceiling of a Brooktrails house before being arrested.

While he has a right to seek a reduction, prosecutors believe his sentence was fully litigated and don't expect a change in the end result, Geniella said.

Lake County prosecutor Don Anderson did not have information Friday about his cases. He said Lake County has a “reputation for heavy sentencing” but has not put anyone away for life for minor crimes.

Anderson said the first of his five cases should be heard sometime in December.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravich warned the number of criminals eligible for resentencing could be higher. Her office was reviewing case files and preparing to notify victims of upcoming hearings.

Factors to consider go beyond commitment offense to include criminal history and behavior while in prison. Ultimately, judges will have discretion about whether a reduced sentence poses any public safety risk.

A concern is how they would be supervised if released. There is no clear provision for probation or parole.

“It's not specifically enumerated,” Ravitch said. “If they've served their time, essentially the door opens and they are free. Which is why we need to proceed with caution.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.

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