Back at bat

Third-strikers get a swing at sentence reduction

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey

file PHOTO by tom gascoyne

Rodney Poor won’t be getting out of prison any time soon.

Poor, 63, was the second Butte County convict denied a sentence reduction since voters passed Proposition 36—which reformed California’s “Three Strikes” law—last November. One inmate, Adam Parsons, was successful in his appeal.

On Aug. 13, Butte County Superior Court Judge Kristen Lucena ruled Poor will continue serving the 25-years-to-life sentence he began in 1997. He will be eligible for parole in nine more years. Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey successfully argued that Poor’s criminal record in and outside of prison indicated he is a significant risk to public safety.

Proposition 36 passed last year, reforming the 1994 Three Strikes law to require the third felony strike be a serious or violent offense for the 25-years-to-life sentence to be applied. It also allowed current prisoners whose third strike doesn’t qualify as serious or violent to retroactively appeal their sentencing.

Poor’s final strike—for manufacturing methamphetamine—was not on the list of serious or violent offenses, and he filed a petition to reduce it shortly after the new law passed. The drug charge—on which a jury convicted him in October 1997—was his fifth felony. He had previously been found guilty on two counts of robbery and two charges of assault with a firearm during a road-rage incident.

Ramsey said Poor’s record in prison—which includes refusals to obey orders, possession of contraband, assaulting another inmate and participating in a riot—indicated he was dangerous and had made little attempt toward rehabilitation.

The first Butte County third-striker to appeal for reduced prison time, Kelly Kimble, was denied in early May. Kimble was convicted of his third strike for felony stalking in June 2008, after he sent his ex-girlfriend threatening text messages. His prior offenses included a 1997 attempted-kidnapping charge in Butte County and a 2006 conviction for making criminal threats in Sacramento County.

Butte County Judge Sandra McLean denied Kimble’s request. As in the Poor case, bad conduct during his incarceration figured prominently in the decision.

Since Three Strikes was enacted, 47 Butte County convicts have been sentenced to 25-years-to-life sentences. Ramsey said that, under the reform, a total of 11 were eligible for resentencing. Three more cases are slated to be heard in the next few months, and the remaining cases are somewhere in the process of petitioning for resentencing, Ramsey said.

“We will be looking at each of these cases individually to determine under the law whether the defendant is an unreasonable risk of danger to the community to be resentenced,” Ramsey stated in a recent press release.

“It should be noted each of these defendants had a hearing before a judge at the time of his original sentencing to determine if the life sentence was fair and each judge found it to be fair at the time. Any resentencing of a defendant now will be largely dependent upon his efforts at rehabilitation and remaining discipline-free in prison.”

Though the DA’s office has successfully stopped reduced sentences for two out of three third-strike challenges, Deputy District Attorney Kurt Worley said he felt Judge Stephen E. Benson’s May 30 decision to let Parsons walk was a serious mistake.

Worley explained in a Tuesday (Aug. 20) phone interview that Parson’s past criminal convictions included assaults and armed robbery of a gas station in 1994 and 1995. His final felony—which does not meet the new Three Strikes criteria—was for escaping from the Butte County Jail prior to being sent to prison for other convictions.

Parsons’ prison record included 22 rules violations, eight of them major, with serious incidents occurring in 2011 and 2012. His initial sentence was for 13 years, plus 25-to-life for the third-strike escape. After resentencing, he’d accrued so much credit on his new sentence of 14 years and four months that he walked free in mid-July with no probation or other oversight.

“I have a sick feeling we’ll be seeing him in court again very soon,” Worley said. “I feel he’s still a risk to society.”

“He was basically a poster child for why we had Three Strikes in the first place,” Ramsey added, also by phone, on Aug. 20. “He had a very violent and nasty record, and we feel the judge made a big mistake in releasing him.”

According to figures released by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and reported by the Wall Street Journal in March, nearly 9,000 California prisoners are third-strike felons. Of these, 2,800 were eligible for resentencing, and 223 had already successfully petitioned for early release.

Prop. 36 was passed by 68 percent of California voters, but remains contentious. Advocates of the law say it’s helping to relieve overcrowding, and saving taxpayers $150 million to $200 million in prison housing costs, while opponents contend the original 1994 law has had a significant impact on decreasing serious crimes.

How various counties have carried out the reform promised by Prop. 36 has also come under scrutiny. A March Associated Press report found that in San Bernardino County, 33 percent of the 291 qualifying inmates were granted lesser sentencing. In Los Angeles County—home of the most eligible appeals, with nearly 1,300—only 6 percent had obtained earlier release.

These disparities also extend to smaller counties. Stanislaus County, for example, has resentenced only two of 50 eligible convicts, while Tulare County has resentenced 67 percent of its 42 three-strikers, the AP reported. The statewide average is 16 percent.