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Why a California Program Allowing Prosecutors to Shorten Prison Sentences Is Catching on in Red and Blue Counties

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A man smiling in a black-and-white photo.
Alwin Smith at the church where he works in Riverside County. Smith, who had been serving a life sentence, was released from prison in July 2021, after the Riverside County district attorney asked a judge to resentence him. (Courtesy of For the People)

Alwin Smith was 30 years old when he received his third strike and a sentence to die in state prison.

Years of struggling with drug addiction caught up with him in 2000, when he was arrested in Riverside County for robbery and possession of drugs.

"When I first got sentenced, I was sentenced to 25 years to life for each one of those. And they gave me 15 more years — five years for each prior offense," he said. "So I ended up with 65 years to life. ... That's a sentence that, can't nobody do it. I mean, you ain't gonna never complete the sentence."

Smith would spend the next two decades in three different state prisons. For the first six years, at Corcoran State Prison, he said he had very little access to drug treatment or other rehabilitation services. But in 2007, he was sent to California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, where he started going to church and soon began attending classes and programs the church offered.

"Now I'm starting to understand some things about my behavior. You know, the one thing, the one factor in my life, is alcohol and drug abuse — that's the thing that continuously had guided my steps," Smith said. "It was the driving force behind my actions and decisions."

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Smith wasn’t just helping himself — over the coming years, he would become a leader, helping other men embrace faith and sobriety at both the Men's Colony and Soledad State Prison, where he was transferred in 2011.

But still, his 65-year-to-life sentence remained — until an unlikely coalition, including Riverside County’s Republican district attorney, joined forces to secure his release.

Hillary Blout helped create the system that made Smith's release possible. A former San Francisco prosecutor, Blout now heads For the People, an Oakland-based criminal justice reform nonprofit.

"I just believed that there was a way that we could get prosecutors to be part of the solution," Blout said. "I knew that prosecutors believe that there were people in prison that didn't need to be there, I knew that they agreed that people can change, and that there were people that were serving sentences not based on current-day practices."

Blout helped write a 2018 California law that enabled district attorneys to bring certain exemplary people in prison back to court and request they be resentenced.

"It started with a couple of conversations with some elected prosecutors in California. They agreed: Yeah, if we had a law like this, we'd use it. We'd use it in a safe way," Blout said. "We would be methodical about it. But yeah, we absolutely would get people out of prison if you showed they didn't need to be there anymore."

For the People works with prosecutors, public defenders and other groups to find the right cases; so far more than 100 people in California prisons have been released through the program since the legislation went into effect in 2019, and Blout estimates another 26,000 could safely reenter society.

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Last year, Blout's group helped secure $18 million in state funding for DAs in nine counties, including San Francisco, Santa Clara and Contra Costa, to help pay for the work of identifying and seeking the release of more eligible people in prison. She says the state could eventually save hundreds of millions of dollars through safe resentencing.

For the People also has successfully pushed to pass similar laws in Washington, Oregon and Illinois.

It's a rare good-news, bipartisan story in a policy area that's historically been marked by bitter disagreement. Democratic state leaders have been pushing criminal justice reform in California in earnest for about a decade, following a lawsuit over state prison crowding that eventually led the U.S. Supreme Court to order the state to reduce the number of people locked up. But most of those reforms remain unpopular among law enforcement officials and Republican leaders.

While this program sounds like a natural fit for progressive prosecutors already committed to reform, it’s notable that it's also being embraced by some more traditionally law-and-order DA's offices — like the one in Yolo County, just west of Sacramento.

Jonathan Raven, the county's chief deputy district attorney, has worked in law enforcement for 25 years. A decade ago, when Raven started working in this office, "we viewed every case as a nail," he said.

"And if you have a nail with the tool, you're going to use a hammer. And we realize now that they're all there, all sorts of other tools in the box that we can use to achieve justice."

The new law, Raven said, allows his office both to reconsider sentences that may have been too long from the start and to revisit cases in which people have demonstrated they've had a true personal transformation in prison.

Raven said his office always works with an eye to public safety and ensuring victims’ voices are part of the resentencing conversation. His office has so far resentenced nine people through the program, most of whom were immediately released, he said.

"It's real stories and real people and real lives. And the thing about sentencing someone to prison — it's a lot of power that we have, and there's such an effect on so many people," he said. "So it's extremely satisfying to see someone who has earned an early release, you know, get out early."

In Alwin Smith’s case, he walked free in July. He’s now back in Riverside County, working at a Costco and interning at a church, where he helps provide meals and showers to the homeless, and speaks to middle school students about his story.

In the long term, Smith said, he just wants to continue to help others.

"I'm working a great job at a great company and I'm giving back. But I want more of the giving back ... and to continue to grow and learn," he said. "So I'm seeing where the Lord is going to lead me and take me in that process."

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