In an unforeseen consequence of easing the state's tough Three Strikes Law, many inmates who have won early release are hitting the streets with up to only $200 in prison "gate money" and the clothes on their backs.
These former lifers are not eligible for parole and thus will not get the guidance and services they need to help them succeed on the outside, such as access to employment opportunities, vocational training and drug rehabilitation.
The lack of oversight and assistance for this first wave of "strikers" alarms both proponents and opponents of the revised Three Strikes Law -- as well as the inmates themselves.
"I feel like the Terminator, showing up in a different time zone completely naked, with nothing," said Greg Wilks, 48, a San Jose man who is poised to be released after serving more than 13 years of a 27-years-to-life sentence for stealing laptops from Cisco, where he secretly lived in a vacant office while working as a temp in shipping and receiving.
Experts say California voters didn't have this situation in mind when they approved Proposition 36 in November by an overwhelming margin. Under the new law, judges cannot impose a life sentence on most repeat offenders who commit minor crimes.
But the law also allows about 3,000 inmates whose last strike was a minor crime to petition for early release or shorter sentences -- as long as a judge finds they don't pose a serious risk to public safety.
Because of the way the state's complex sentencing laws work, many of those strikers have already been locked up longer than their newly calculated terms and usual period of parole, leaving many to fend for themselves without supervision or assistance once they are released.
So far, none of three dozen or so strikers who have been resentenced since November or with the help of the Three Strikes Project before the election has been rearrested.
But some say it's only a matter of time.
"It's pretty clear if you release people early without any supervision, there's an increased ability of them to re-offend," said Mike Reynolds, a Fresno man who helped draft the Three Strikes Law after his daughter was slain in 1992 by two repeat offenders. "It's a very, very dangerous policy."
Supporters of the revised three strikes policy are concerned that a notable uptick in crime -- even minor crimes by strikers -- will make the new law look like an ill-advised failure.
To reduce the risk, the same Stanford University Law School instructors who co-wrote Proposition 36 are now organizing a statewide effort to create re-entry plans for strikers using a combination of public and private services. They're planning to meet with operators of homeless shelters and innovative transitional programs from around the state, like San Francisco's Delancey Street Foundation, one of the country's leading residential self-help organizations for former substance abusers, ex-convicts, homeless people and others who have hit bottom.
"We want these people to succeed," said Michael Romano, director of Stanford's Three Strikes Project. "We don't want them committing crimes and creating more victims."
Proponents say the main reason they didn't foresee the situation is that the rules regarding parole changed significantly -- after officials had already approved the ballot language for Proposition 36.
Under California's realignment of its criminal justice system, the role of supervising most nonviolent offenders is shifting in stages from the state to county probation officers. But neither the realignment statute nor the Three Strikes Law made provisions for monitoring released strikers.
Romano said the issue is now being litigated in Los Angeles County, where a prosecutor claims strikers should be supervised by probation officers. But even if they are, he said, many counties lack the resources to help the mostly male population of former lifers make a successful transition.
In Wilks' case, he agreed late Friday to be monitored by Santa Clara County, so he could get out this week with access to services like housing assistance.
Before the election, it was relatively easy for Romano and his law students to get personally involved in each of the few early releases they persuaded a judge to grant. They'd wait all night to pick up strikers from prison; in some cases, they'd even help usher them through airport security and hook them up with jobs.
Others who sponsored strikers for early release, like retired judge and San Jose police auditor LaDoris Cordell, were able to personally keep in touch and monitor their charges.
But no single group or person can keep up with the expected increase in the number of returning strikers -- especially given the breadth of their special needs.
Three-strikers face greater re-entry challenges than normal inmates, said Joan Petersilia, a Stanford law professor. About 38 percent receive some level of mental health treatment in prison, compared with 22 percent of the general population.
Romano and his group are hoping to turn to the same donors who funded Proposition 36 for help in creating a statewide re-entry program. A lot rides on the strikers' success. If they do well -- with the help of people like liberal billionaire George Soros, who donated heavily to Proposition 36 -- advocates could use their success to advance the cause of prison reform. If they fail, it could weaken the national effort to reduce mass incarceration.
In Santa Clara County, there is already a collaborative effort under way to help anyone coming out of jail or prison. The Re-entry Resource Center, located in a building that used to house the San Jose City Attorney's Office at 70 W. Hedding St., offers everything from mental health services to free clothing to housing assistance and food stamps.
But the center has yet to be tested for the newly released strikers, because they are just beginning to trickle out. And it's not clear if there's sufficient funding. But there's a willingness to help.
"No one leaves here empty-handed," peer mentor Manny Ortega vowed.
Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.