SANTA CRUZ -- The revised three-strikes law isn't expected to have much effect in Santa Cruz County, the county's top prosecutor said this week.
"We've always been very judicious about the use of the three-strike policy," District Attorney Bob Lee said.
Proposition 36, which voters passed last week, requires the third felony be a serious or violent crime to mandate an automatic sentence of 25 years to life in prison. Prior to its passage, California was the only state with a three strikes law in which a third strike could be a "non-serious" crime such as shoplifting or missing a parole appointment. Statewide, a quarter of the more than 8,000 third-strikers are in prison for life for such crimes.
"I'm not sure the electorate originally intended for minor cases to be third strikes," Monterey County Public Defender Jim Egar said. "The public has seen the inequitable sentences that result."
Egar said he believes the changes will have a significant impact in present and future cases because he says the potential for a third strike is used as a plea bargain tactic by prosecutors as leverage.
"The new law puts us in a situation where we now have the ability to defend clients who are legally or factually innocent without the threat of a 25-years-to-life sentence," said Mark Briscoe, a Santa Cruz County public defender.
As of June, there were 13 third-strikers from Santa Cruz County and 42 from Monterey County in state prison, according to state records. The three-strikers from Santa Cruz County have convictions ranging from robbery to rape, from burglary to receiving stolen property. It also includes one person convicted for driving under influence.
Six Monterey County third-strikers were sentenced to life for possession of a weapon, two for drug possession, one for petty theft and one for shoplifting.
Lee said he knows of just one third-striker from Santa Cruz County who may be eligible for resentencing. Kevin Paul O'Connell, 58, was sentenced to life in 1995 on two counts of possession of stolen property and one count of first-degree burglary. His attorney, Tom Wallraff, wasn't available for comment Wednesday.
Looking forward, neither Lee nor Monterey County District Attorney Terry Spitz said they believe the law will change how prosecutors in their offices work.
Prosecutors review cases carefully before deciding whether to seek sentencing under three-strikes law, and all of those decisions are given a final review, Lee said.
"It's not up to the whims of individual district attorneys," he said.
Judges and prosecutors also have the power to strike a strike, he explained.
"We strike strikes all the time," Lee said.
Julia Reynolds of the Monterey County Herald contributed to this report
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