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County supervisors fund extra help for Proposition 47 resentencing cases

Attorney Denver Latimer said a new state law has led to reduced sentences for many of his clients.

Attorney Denver Latimer said a new state law has led to reduced sentences for many of his clients.


This past November, California voters passed Proposition 47, which redefined some nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors, and Butte County legal authorities braced themselves for a flood of petitions from those seeking resentencing for reduced charges. Later that month, District Attorney Mike Ramsey told news sources he expected about 600 Butte County residents charged with eligible offenses—particularly drug possession and property crimes of less than $950—to take advantage of the new law, which supporters dubbed the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act.

Ramsey’s projections proved to be an underestimation. As of Tuesday (Jan. 27), Butte County Superior Court has received 1,031 petitions for resentencing, according to figures provided by Sheriff Kory Honea. Of those, 746 already have been or are currently being adjudicated.

Honea said one of Prop. 47’s intended effects—to lessen jail overcrowding compounded by the 2011 passage of AB 109, commonly known as the prisoner realignment bill—were felt immediately, though he has concerns about the new law’s long-term implications.

The sheriff explained that the population of the Butte County Jail, which has an official capacity of 614 beds, dropped from an average of 600 prisoners per day to 540 shortly after Prop. 47 passed. However, he said that the population has been steadily rising since, with Tuesday’s number of inmates standing at 593.

“I still have some concerns [about Prop. 47],” Honea said. “I’m not confident that we know how it will impact some of the alternative custody and rehabilitation programs we’ve established. I’m afraid we could see an increase in drug crimes, petty thefts and offenses that affect the quality of life here in Butte County.

“It’s kind of like the wild west right now,” he continued. “We’re all trying to see how the implementation of Prop. 47 plays out and if we’ll see some unintended consequences.”

One of the results thus far has been the need for more staff on both sides of the courtroom. On Tuesday, the Butte County Board of Supervisors approved a consent agenda item for the District Attorney and the Public Defenders offices to get funding for extra help with these cases.

“Each resentencing case requires investigative and legal workup by the prosecution, and a competent legal defense,” reads a staff report presented at the supervisor’s meeting. “The district attorney and public defender cannot absorb the temporary increase in the workload.”

The supervisors agreed to budget $54,030 from the county’s general fund contingencies to pay for an experienced retired “annuitant prosecutor” who has been helping the DA’s office deal with the extra work. They also authorized the Public Defenders Office to contract with Chico defense attorney Denver Latimer, using up to $24,000 from existing appropriations.

Latimer said he’s been handling all Prop. 47 cases in Butte County in which petitioners for resentencing don’t have money to hire a private lawyer, and offered his own take on the advantages of the new law, which he calls “a very effective piece of legislation.” He estimated up to 10 percent of his Prop. 47 clients have been released immediately, while others have received dramatic sentence reductions.

“These are not people committing violent crimes or sex crimes, they’re just people who haven’t been able to kick their addiction to drugs, or had similar problems,” Latimer said. “It’s great not only for the defendants who can get out of punitive, nonrehabilitative situations they’re stuck in for years, but it’s also good for the overcrowding of our jails and prisons.”

Latimer explained that some sentences for minor crimes are often doubled and tripled due to prior offenses now eligible for reduction under Prop. 47. He offered the story of one recent client, a father of two young children, who was eight months into a five-year sentence. His term was reduced to one year, he was granted time served, and then he was released and reunited with his wife and children that day.

Latimer also noted that those released early by Prop. 47 are automatically on parole for one year, countering Honea’s concern that drug users will not get adequate help.

“It’s not like they’re being released into no-treatment situations,” he said. “They’re actually going to have to be drug-tested and supervised by our parole officers. Parole also has the option to sentence them to treatment.”