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Inmates at the West County Detention Facility

Contra Costa among first to resentence people under law addressing harsh prison terms.

on September 29, 2021

Some incarcerated people with lengthy prison sentences may see a reduction in their time now that Contra Costa County is among the first in the nation to launch a resentencing pilot program, which it did this month. 

For decades, California’s “tough on crime” stance sent swaths of individuals into state prisons with lengthy sentences. While the state’s political leaders and the judicial system have made moves in recent years to reduce prison populations, the legacy of mass incarceration has left thousands of families without breadwinners, caregivers and loved ones.

Through the pilot program, Contra Costa County is poised to roll back sentences that no longer “serve the interest of justice.” 

Contra Costa received $2.05 million in state money for the pilot, joining nine other California counties launching such programs. In July, the state earmarked $18 million for the initiative, which came out of a law that went into effect in 2019. 

The law allows district attorneys — rather than incarcerated people or their families — to petition a court for resentencing. The funding will help the district attorney and the Public Defender Office add staff to their resentencing units, Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton said.

“We know excessive sentences can undermine our ability to hold the most violent people in our community accountable,” Becton said. “There is a strain on the state prison system.”

The county has resentenced two people so far under the new law, including Christopher Hales, who was 21 when he was sentenced to 89 years to life for his third robbery. Hales received his original sentence in 1995 under California’s “three strikes” law, which has since been amended. Through the new law, his sentence was commuted and he is now free, Becton said. 

The district attorney’s office is still determining criteria for what cases will be eligible for the pilot, Becton said. She, as well as the Public Defender Office and For the People — a nonprofit overseeing the program — had no estimate of how many could be resentenced through the program.  

The reckoning comes after decades of what Hillary Blout, founder and executive director of For the People, called a “one size fits all legal system” that treated people as if they were disposable. 

But some prison reform advocates worry that the program will only take on cases like thefts, rather than manslaughter or murder.  

“They always go for the safe cases,” said Oscar Flores, lead organizer with Richmond-based nonprofit Reuniting Families Contra Costa, which is helping For the People oversee the program locally. 

Flores said that Contra Costa has a reputation in the Bay Area for handing down harsh sentences. 

“District Attorney Becton has tried to implement some reforms, but in my opinion, they’ve been cosmetic at best,” Flores said. 

Reuniting Families has identified at least three cases that may be eligible for the program, including a Richmond man jailed for 20 years for mistakenly killing his best friend, Flores said.

As the law gains momentum, Blout said more communities will see the benefits.

“We’re really seeing that the small pockets of our community that have been decimated by mass incarceration are beginning to come back,” Blout said. “Each person who’s able to get resentenced, released and reunited with their family is reaching so many other people beyond that individual person.”

This story was updated to correct information about Reuniting Families Contra Costa.

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