Newly approved changes to California's three strikes law under Proposition 36 are due to bring a swift overhaul of the ways some plea deals are negotiated and sentences levied in Monterey County.
In Tuesday's election, voters overwhelmingly approved a dramatic revision to the landmark law they first passed in 1994, now requiring that a so-called third strike be violent or serious.
"We're distributing the materials about Prop. 36 to our attorneys, letting them know it's in effect today," Chief Assistant District Attorney Terry Spitz said Wednesday.
Of the two dozen states with similar laws, California until this week was the only one where a third strike could be a "non-serious" crime such as shoplifting, stealing a loaf of bread 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."
Although the revisions allow those already sentenced to life for low-level nonviolent crimes to petition courts for re-sentencing, the biggest effect locally is likely to be the law's effect on upcoming cases.
"It will have a very significant impact in present and future cases, because the potential for a third strike is used as a plea bargain tactic by the DA as leverage," Egar said.
Monterey defense attorney Steve Liner said the changes might even lead to fewer plea bargains and more cases going to trial.
"It will lower some of the pressure," Liner said. Defendants until now might have readily agreed to plea deals when convictions at trial meant third strikes for minor crimes.
"Sometimes the risk of 25 to life will force a settlement," Liner said.
Now, without a life sentence looming in some cases, more may be more willing to risk going to trial, he said.
The Monterey County District Attorney's Office is one of only a few in California to have written guidelines for applying strikes, and those rules urge prosecutors to take many factors into consideration, such as whether it has been 10 years or more since a defendant committed his previous offenses.
Spitz said his office will for the most part continue to file strike charges as it did before Proposition 36 passed.
Liner said Monterey County prosecutors and judges have generally applied third strikes with discretion.
"I think the DA's office and the judges here don't relish sending people to life on non-serious charges," Liner said. "They seem to do a pretty good job of being mindful of the humanity and the complexities of cases."
But there are exceptions.
One defendant Liner hopes to bring back for re-sentencing is Legrante Vernon Ellis, charged in 2004 with armed robbery of a group of bar patrons in Pacific Grove. Ellis is serving a life sentence at a state prison in Soledad.
Twelve years earlier — and two years before three strikes became law — Ellis earned what would later be called strikes in a night of robberies, including using a replica pellet gun to rob two men of $30.
At trial in 2005, Ellis was acquitted of the Pacific Grove robbery charges. He was, however, convicted of unauthorized use of a credit card.
"That's probably the classic scenario. We had beaten all the more serious charges. But the judge gave him 25 to life anyway," Liner said. "It shouldn't have ended that way, but it did."
Under three strikes, men in Monterey County have been sentenced to 25 years to life for crimes ranging from petty theft to drug possession to second-degree burglary — the same offenses that qualify others for county jail, probation and rehabilitation programs.
Between 10 and 24 percent of the county's third-strikers fall into the minor crime category, said state prison records.
Of Monterey County's 42 third-strikers in prison as of June, six were sentenced to life for possession of a weapon, two for drug possession, one for petty theft and one for shoplifting or a similar crime.
The number who might apply for re-sentencing in Monterey County is low — fewer than 10.
Under the law passed this week, those whose third-strike crime was possession of a firearm are out of luck, because that charge, along with certain sex crimes, is exempt. In addition, anyone previously convicted of rape, murder or child molestation is ineligible to apply for resentencing under the new law, even if their last crime was a minor one.
Egar said his office is researching all potential re-sentencing cases from the county to see who qualifies.
"This is going to be a process," he said.
Julia Reynolds can be reached at 648-1187 or firstname.lastname@example.org.