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Debbie Curry, wife of three-striker Charles Airy, expressed hope from her home in San Jose, Calif. Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, that the passage of prison reform Proposition 36 yesterday will make her husband eligible for early release or reduced sentences. (Karl Mondon/Staff)

SAN JOSE -- Cashier Debbie Curry woke up Wednesday to find California voters had given her a priceless gift: hope.

By an overwhelming margin, they'd passed Proposition 36 to revise the state's tough Three Strikes Law.

The new law prohibits judges from imposing a life sentence on most repeat offenders who commit minor crimes. But it also includes a provision that could result in an early release or shorter sentence for Curry's husband -- and up to 3,000 inmates like him who were sentenced to life in prison for nonviolent, relatively minor crimes like stealing a credit card.

Curry's husband, Charles Airy, has been locked up in Vacaville on a life sentence since 2001 for drug possession. His previous two strikes were for nonviolent burglaries back in the 1960s and 70s, she said.

"Oh my God, I'm just so elated and grateful,'' Curry said. "It's not just my husband who has been incarcerated. I've been incarcerated, waiting for him.''

She's not the only one who envisions a new life for her family. Alberta Manzanares' brother has served 17 years of a life sentence for stealing a credit card in Santa Clara County. His previous strikes also were burglaries, she said.

"Oh my God, when I heard it on the news, I was like, crying,'' said Manzanares. "He might be coming home.''

Work begins

But just how fast lifers get a resentencing hearing before a judge -- and if they get out early at all -- is likely to depend on where they were convicted. The movement on cases might go more slowly in conservative places like the Central Valley, while in relatively liberal Los Angeles County and the Bay Area, things might move along more efficiently.


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"We're probably less likely to see the DA acquiesce on petitions for release or resentencing in many cases,'' said Kern County's interim chief public defender, Konrad Moore.

Jeff Adachi, San Francisco's public defender and a spokesman for the California Public Defenders Association, estimated it will take six months to a year in most counties.

In contrast, Santa Clara County is nearly ready. The county's acting public defender, Molly O'Neal, has already drawn up a list of 127 three-strikers who may be eligible to apply for a shorter sentence or early release.

"I hope we begin getting people out before the end of the year,'' O'Neal said. "This will right an unfairness in the system dating from (1994) when Three Strikes was passed.''

The process will be much quicker in Santa Clara County because District Attorney Jeff Rosen promised well before the election that he would seek shorter terms or outright release for at least some three-strikers even if Proposition 36 lost. His office has already done much of the necessary research, cutting down on the need for lengthy court hearings in cases where he and O'Neal agree on a solution.

Volunteer lawyer

O'Neal said a Stanford law school graduate who worked on the university's Three Strikes Project is helping with the effort for free. The director of the project, law school Professor Michael Romano, co-authored Proposition 36.

Before public defenders can pursue a new sentence, three-strikers must fill out application forms giving the office permission. They are available on the Santa Clara County Public Defender's website under "Three Strikes Reform Screening Packet.''

In San Mateo County, Public Defender John Digiacinto said he's already received the form back from one eager three-striker.

"We reassigned it to the lawyer who represented him, and she's going to jump on it,'' Digiacinto said. "I expect it to have a good result.''

Los Angeles mother Kathy Lazenby is hoping her son gets out after 11 years, but she's trying hard not to count on it.

"It's Christmas to him in there,'' Lazenby said. "But it's not a slam-dunk. We still have a long way to go before he's out.''

Follow Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.