SALINAS, Calif. - Following changes in several state laws that make sentencing less punitive, the Monterey District Attorney's Office announced this week the creation of a conviction review unit to identify and remedy wrongful convictions.
The new unit is ready to accept claims for convictions made in Monterey County. Those who believe they were wrongfully convicted or given a longer sentence because of enhancement charges that no longer are part of the California penal code can submit their case to the district attorney for review.
Cases that merit review will then undergo a "detailed" investigation, and if the investigation reveals a wrongful conviction, the district attorney "will make every effort within its power to achieve justice," the office said in a news release.
Deputy District Attorney Lindsey O'Shea said the county was inspired by similar units created in Alameda and San Diego counties.
"A lot of county prosecutor offices have been setting these up," O'Shea said. "There are several in the state ... I've at least looked at the policies of seven counties."
The announcement comes at the heels of the states' recent $18 million budget allocation to nine different counties to fund and pilot similar units in Los Angeles, Santa Clara, San Francisco, Riverside, Contra Costa, San Diego, Yolo, Merced, and Humboldt.
"I think the trend is that people are trying to get resentencing on cases where the laws changed," O'Shea said. "I mean, like what has become a lot more lenient and a lot of enhancements have been taken away." Enhancements are additional charges within the penal code that allow for additional prison time if someone has committed a felony.
Some of those enhancements that have been overturned, O'Shea said, are prison priors which add an additional year if you have been convicted for the same felony within five years of serving time for your first conviction.
"So, for instance, if you have a strike that would double your base term, and then also, if it was a violence strike have an additional five years, that would be two separate enhancements, basically, for one prior conviction," O'Shea said.
She also pointed to Assembly Bill 109, passed in 2011, which made a lot of drug crimes misdemeanors instead of felonies, and to Senate Bill 180, passed in 2017 that overturned enhancements on prior drug convictions.
Before the creation of such units, the only means of overturning a wrongful conviction were through the appellate courts. There were no local resources devoted exclusively to the goal, according to the District Attorney's Office.
Now, with the conviction review unit, there are formal and standard practices to review and investigate such claims.
However, "The unit will rely on applicants who bring cases to the unit's attention," the office said. Directions and claim forms can be found at the district attorney's website or can be provided by request by emailing CRU@monterey.ca.us.