Some inmates from Merced County reduced sentences under the new state program

Some inmates from Merced County can see reduced sentences under the new state program

Merced is one of nine California counties selected to participate in a pilot program that aims to bring justice to people serving excessive prison sentences by returning them home to their community.

The California County Resentencing Pilot Program was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom as part of California's 2021 budget, allocating $18 million to county governments for resentencing initiated by the attorney general.

Merced County is scheduled to begin the program in September and is expected to receive more than $1 million to cover costs associated with the pilot, which is set to run through January 31, 2025.

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The program stems from initiatives catalyzed by the Oakland-based organization For the People, which in 2018 worked to pass the country's first law allowing prosecutors to reassess sentences via State Assembly Bill 2942.

The law has helped return about 75 people from prisons to their homes.

"I don't think there's a prosecutor who doesn't have a single case that they'd like to bring back," said For the People and CEO Hilary Plaut. "As the former attorney general, I felt it was our responsibility."

The piloted pilot program is part of a statewide approach

Plaut was previously an attorney general in the San Francisco District Attorney's office when Vice President Kamala Harris was elected.

During that time, Ballout said, she has seen problems in the criminal justice system that need to change. She saw an opportunity for prosecutors to get involved.

This led to Blout forming For the People and eventually obtaining the first displeasure law by the Attorney General on the books in California. Blout said a similar law was passed the following year in Washington state. The organization is working with ten other states across the United States to build dissatisfaction with the attorney general.

This reinstatement effort aligns with a larger statewide strategy by the Newsom administration to reform sentencing and begin closing prisons. Blout said the California legislature considered AB 2942 as another lever that could be used to complete more dungeons across the state eventually.

The governor recently announced plans to close the Deuel Professional Institution in Tracy in September and the California Correctional Center in Susanville in June 2022. 

The state budget projects that the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation will spend $112,691 on each incarcerated individual this fiscal year, increasing nearly $10,000 over the previous fiscal year.

Although AB 2942 was legal two years ago, Blout discovered that many California counties were unaware. She said the pilot is providing a financial investment for counties to designate someone designated to do the work and hopefully spread the word about the resentment that the attorney general has started.

Having developed the process where plaintiffs reconsider unfair or excessive judgments, For the People serves as budget sponsor for the pilot. The other eight participating counties are Los Angeles, Santa Clara, San Francisco, Riverside, Contra Costa, San Diego, Yolo, and Humboldt.

Given the diverse demographics across California's counties and prison populations, the program is designed to provide local prosecutors with discretion in determining the types of cases and criteria appropriate to the components of that jurisdiction.

It was only recently that local officials were given the news that Merced County had been selected. The state's changing demographics are partly due to why Merced chose the program, given that it represents its geographic center and a medium-sized population.

Who will qualify?

Chief District Attorney Stacy McReynolds said the logistics of how the program can best fit Merced County is currently being ironed out. Officials should think significantly about case criteria and types of crimes.

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