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Some pathways to freedom are codified in the law — and then there’s what transpires when barriers to court entry are instituted in secrecy. 

In 2018, former California Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bills 1812 and 2942 into law, creating more opportunities for prisoners to have their sentences recalled — that is, modified. Specifically, the bills amended California Penal Code section 1170(d)(1) so it provides the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) with funding and authorizes district attorneys to make resentencing referrals. 

According to the law, a sentence could be recalled in several ways. The sentencing court could recall a sentence on its own if the sentence is within 120 days of the original sentence. The district attorney from the county that set the sentence could send a petition to recall a sentence or local law enforcement could submit a petition to the court. Finally, the secretary of the CDCR could also submit a petition for state prisoners. 

It appears to be a straightforward process on the surface, but in actuality, people attempting to engage in it face many challenges. 

Some of the district attorneys do not accept petitions directly. For example, Contra Costa County, where I was sentenced, uses the third-party non-profit organization For The People to screen petitions based on criteria from the DA’s office. So, if an inmate does not measure up to the DA’s standard of review, the organization may not forward the petition.

According to For The People, it works with the DAs of several counties in California, including San Diego county, San Francisco county and San Luis Obispo county.

Then there is the CDCR, which outlines a procedure for how it handles resentencing in the California Code of Regulations, Title 15, section 3076. What many, if not most, inmates do not know is that the CDCR changed the regulations governing the law, raising the bar to add exclusionary criteria.

For example, if an inmate is within 18 months of appearing before the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH), the CDCR secretary will not entertain a petition for a recall of a sentence. If an inmate has already appeared before the BPH and was not found suitable, the secretary will not review the petition. Inmates who have to register as sex offenders are also not considered. 

As it stands, no matter how well-behaved, educated or rehabilitated a prisoner may be, they may still not be considered for resentencing. These kinds of barriers to one’s freedom are where the law meets reality. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Kevin D. Sawyer

Kevin D. Sawyer is an African American native of San Francisco and has written numerous short stories, memoirs, essays, poems and journals. He is a contributing writer for PJP, a a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and a former associate editor for San Quentin News. Some of his work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Post, California Prison Focus and others. He was a 2019 PEN American Honorable Mention in nonfiction, a 2016 recipient of The James Aronson Award for community journalism, and part of the San Quentin News team that won SPJ’s 2014 James Madison Freedom of Information Award. Prior to incarceration, Kevin worked in the telecommunications industry for 14 years. He holds a bachelor of arts in mass communication from California State University, Hayward.