Kent Williams, 57,  speaks at news conference about his release.
Kent Williams, 57, speaks at news conference about his release: “I had to make a quality decision. Did I want to die in prison? That’s what it boiled down to.” Image via San Diego County District Attorney’s Office

A San Diego man who spent 16 years behind bars for burglary and vehicle theft is thought to be the first inmate released through California’s new re-sentencing law that allows prosecutors to review and reconsider sentences that may be considered unduly harsh, it was announced Thursday.

Kent Williams, 57, was sentenced in 2003 to 50 years to life behind bars for burglarizing two North Park homes and stealing a car. He received a life sentence due to California’s “three strikes” law and was not eligible to appear before a parole board until 2052, but AB 2942, which took effect Jan. 1, allowed local prosecutors to petition for his early release.

Prosecutors considered Williams’ nonviolent criminal record, his conduct while incarcerated, and his work overcoming drug addiction, according to San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan.

Williams was re-sentenced to a 16-year term under an agreement between the D.A.’s office and the judge who oversaw his original case, leading to his release in June.

Williams says he’s now working a full-time job and pursuing an education.

A jubilant Williams told reporters: “You’re looking at a miracle.” He said a large part of his rehabilitation was learning the importance of “doing the right thing when no one else is looking.”

During his incarceration, he was forced to examine his impulsive nature and drug addiction, which he said were large factors for his continual prison stints.

“I had to make a quality decision. Did I want to die in prison? That’s what it boiled down to,” Williams said.

He credited his family and faith with keeping him on the right path — which includes 15 years of sobriety — and said he hoped other inmates will do the same.

“If you do the right thing, if you do the work, don’t look at it like ‘If I get out or not.’
My thing was `’God, if I never get out, I’m going to continue to do the right thing,’” he said.

Hillary Blout, a former prosecutor and current director of the Sentence Review Project, authored AB 2942, which “gives DAs the opportunity to reconsider whether the decisions that they made are really in the best interest of community safety.”

According to Blout, she asked prosecutors across the state whether they thought there were any imprisoned people who shouldn’t be behind bars, who refused plea deals when they shouldn’t have, or whether the prosecutors had any regrets regarding cases they oversaw.

She said they answered yes to each question.

Blout said AB 2942 offers inmates who have turned their lives around a chance to bypass many of the barriers and obstacles keeping prisoners from rehabilitating and re-integrating into society.

“There are so many other people like Mr. Williams in our prison today in California that deserve to come home,” Blout said.

Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, who introduced the bill last year, said it costs the state $12 billion a year to incarcerate more than 100,000 inmates. Blout said those costs amount to about $80,000 annually per inmate.

“Our criminal justice system is not working the way it should be,” Ting said. “It’s not always protecting us. It’s not always serving us.”

Prior to the law’s passage, inmates like Williams could receive recommendations for early release only from the Board of Parole Hearings or the California Corrections secretary. Ting said one of the law’s advantages is that it places much of the reform powers into the hands of prosecutors and judges, who have the final say whether someone can be released.

“We have so many folks in our corrections system who are serving time that is excessive, that they have sentences they wouldn’t have if they were convicted today,” Ting said. “They were convicted under a different time.

“They were convicted during a different period when our state really believed that the longer we put people away, the better it is for our society and the safer it is. I think what we’ve learned is that isn’t always the case.”

Anyone seeking to have a prison sentence reviewed was advised to contact their local district attorney’s office, which has the discretion to review cases.

— City News Service

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