Courts & Crime

Families hope California budget woes will ease 3-strikes law

MODESTO, Calif. — When Gayle Lane voted for California's "three strikes" law, she never imagined it would put her son behind bars for 25 years to life for stealing $40 worth of jewelry.

"Mike has never been a violent person," Lane said of her son, Michael, who's been in prison for 14 years. "It just gets you right in your stomach at times. ... The punishment should fit what they've done."

Gayle Lane, 72, of Groveland, is among more than 12,000 members of Families to Amend Three Strikes who are pushing to limit the law's reach to people who commit violent offenses.

She and others hope the state's budget crisis will mean early release for nonviolent three-strikers. It costs $47,000 per year, on average, to incarcerate an inmate in a California prison, according to the legislative analyst's office.

Early release is a step that many lawmakers are unwilling to take, even when faced with the state's $20 billion deficit. State Sens. Jeff Denham of Atwater and Dave Cogdill of Modesto said they oppose early release of inmates as a budget-saving measure.

"Opening our prison doors early will only open a floodgate of crime, and that's a risk no Californian should be willing to take," Cogdill said Friday.

Gov. Schwarzenegger slices prison spending in his latest budget proposal, but not by scaling back "three strikes." He said much of the prison savings in his plan would come through letting the state pay private companies to operate prisons and provide more prison services. His proposal envisions $1.2 billion in cuts to the prison system in the next fiscal year by reducing health care for inmates, shifting nonviolent offenders from prison to county jails and reducing the juvenile prison population.

But some counties are looking at releasing inmates early to save money.

Two weeks ago, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said she planned to reduce jail capacity by nearly half as part of a plan to close a $4 million funding gap for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

In Stanislaus County, District Attorney Birgit Fladager said she believes the early release of three- strikers would result in a "schizophrenic system" that does injustice to the victims of serious crimes.

She said the majority of defendants charged as three-strikers in 2007 and 2008 in Stanislaus County did not receive life sentences, the result of fewer chronic offenders on the street or more discretion by judges and prosecutors.

"I think there needs to be some finality in what we do in the criminal justice system," Fladager said.

"Otherwise ... victims never will have the assurance that a sentence that was determined to be fair and just by a judge will be carried out."

On Saturday, Gayle Lane planned to make the nearly four-hour trek to the state prison in Coalinga where her oldest son is housed.

Michael Lane, 52, had two run-ins with the law, in 1984 and 1990, for residential burglaries.

His third conviction, a year after "three strikes" was passed in 1994, came with a sentence of 25 years to life for possession of stolen property.

Gayle Lane said he always tries to sound upbeat and likes to talk about his daughter, who is a registered nurse.

"It's been a sad situation for him," Lane said. "For a parent, it's very devastating."