Three weeks after Thanh Tran’s 18th birthday, he rang a drug dealer’s doorbell. In an instant, Tran was caught up in a gang-related attempted murder and attempted robbery case that could have landed him in a California state prison for 75 years to life.
Prosecutors presented Tran with a plea bargain of 17 years in prison, even though he didn’t pull the trigger during the 2011 incident. Without understanding his rights, Tran says he was pressured to accept the deal to avoid receiving a virtual life sentence.
“I was an 18-year-old kid. I couldn’t even fathom what 75 years to life meant, so I was like ‘17 years, that’s at least one year less than I’ve been alive. So I’ll take that,’” Tran recalls.
Seven years into his incarceration at San Quentin State Prison and in between bouts of depression, Tran says he was at his wit’s end. But he recalls how he had “a complete paradigm shift” when James King, another incarcerated man, encouraged him to get involved with an in-house policy advocacy team that partnered with local nonprofits such as the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights to strategize legislative recommendations.
Tran, who is Black and Vietnamese, was among the people of color disproportionately receiving multi-decade sentences, in what advocates say are excessive.
As he found satisfaction as a policy advocate, California became the first state to pass the Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing (PIR) law in 2018. This law grants prosecutor offices the power to revisit multi-decade and life sentence cases. In August, the American Bar Association unanimously adopted a resolution urging federal, state, and local governments to enact the law.
The PIR law is part of a growing effort in recent years to reduce mass incarceration. With more reform-minded prosecutors in office, they can consider releasing those in prison based on certain criteria: a person’s incarceration record; circumstances of the crime and the suspect at the time; input from the victim or the victim’s family; and whether the convicted offense was based on an outdated policy, such as a low-level marijuana crime.
Before the creation of the PIR law, those in prison relied on their attorneys to petition the court for consideration of a review or, like Tran, they would submit it on their own.
Tran says he repeatedly reached out to the Santa Clara District Attorney’s Office that put him behind bars to review his case. During those four years, he also applied to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office for his sentence to get commuted.
Both offices granted permission in January and March 2022, respectively, for the parole board to consider Tran’s release. Those were dual wins for Tran, but having to face the parole board felt like another roadblock to freedom. Nonetheless, in May 2022, Tran walked out of San Quentin prison with $200 of “gate money” to a crowd of 50 of his supporters. Having been diagnosed with COVID, he socially distanced himself.
Before Dwain Woodley became assistant district attorney for San Diego County in 2021, he was tasked with reviewing old cases. It has been an eye-opening experience for him, he tells Capital B.
“These sentences were excessive — way excessive — for what the person did. People should have a chance to reunite with their families and be back in community,” Woodley says.
To date, nearly 850, mostly Black, incarcerated people in California, Oregon, Washington, Illinois, Louisiana, and Minnesota were released from prison because of the PIR law. Six other states (Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas) have introduced PIR bills, according to For The People, a nonprofit organization dedicated to working with prosecutors to revisit past sentences.
Hillary Blout, the founder of For The People, conceptualized the first enacted PIR law, later authored in the California Assembly by Democrat Phil Ting.
Blout says it allows prosecutors to humanize a convicted person. During trial, prosecutors wouldn’t learn anything about the defendant unless their attorney presents the information.
“What we see is that there are people that, at the time of their offense, were experiencing incredible, unmentionable trauma,” Blout, a former San Francisco prosecutor, says.
“Prosecutors are supposed to protect victims, and here we are looking at a case of somebody who is serving a life sentence, and we’re reading all about every instance that they were not protected.”
Upon release, Blout says, formerly incarcerated PIR recipients are so fired up to have a second chance at life that they do all they can to maintain a law-abiding lifestyle to prevent recidivism.
But government resources to help support the formerly incarcerated upon their release are limited. Tran says reentry programs are an under-resourced area of the criminal justice system that needs more attention to ensure that an incarcerated person is equipped to go back into society.
Nonprofit organizations such as For the People and the Center for Employment Opportunities assist those such as Tran released under the PIR law with a reentry plan that includes housing, job training, and reuniting with loved ones, as well as mental health and substance abuse counseling.
When Tran was released on parole, he was forced to return to South Sacramento, where the gang activity persisted. At 29, he had to learn how to pay bills and utilize new technologies while caring for his six siblings, who he says live in dire poverty. He’s also a father of an infant.
As a part of the ABA’s resolution, it also calls for providing resources to support district attorneys, community-based organizations, with its implementation.
Prosecutors righting the wrongs of the past
Blout says that people of color are more likely to be a candidate for release under the PIR law, especially in California, where its three-strikes law has contributed to the rise in people serving life sentences, largely for nonviolent crimes. In addition to supporting the PIR law, the ABA also adopted a second-chance resolution last year that calls for legislation that encourages the review of sentences after 10 years.
There are cases such as that of Alwin Smith, who at 31 was in the throes of addiction when he committed a robbery at a pizza shop. During Smith’s 40 years-to-life sentence, he made a sobriety pledge, became a mentor in prison, and after 20 years was recommended for release by Riverside County, California, prosecutors. And James Riviera was 59 years old when a judge handed him a 140 years-to-life sentence for a series of commercial robberies. At 84 years old, Riviera was recommended for release in 2021 by San Diego County prosecutors.
Although the three-strikes law is still on the books, in San Diego, Woodley says his office uses its discretion to not implement it for every person with three strikes against them. The PIR law allows his small team of prosecutors to right the wrongs of previously sentenced individuals, such as a Black father who was ripped from his family when a DUI that resulted in the injury of one of his children during a single-car accident elevated to a 50 years-to-life sentence.
“That’s an example of a case where you go back and look at it — I would never have seen it but for this work — and say, ‘Does somebody deserve to see a life sentence for that situation?’” Woodley scoffs.
To date, the San Diego County district attorney’s office has released nearly 70 incarcerated Black and brown people between the ages 45 to 65 under the PIR law. Only three white people have been included in the headcount so far, Woodley says.
Although North Carolina doesn’t have a PIR law on their books, in 2019, Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry campaigned during her first run for office to have a handful of assistant district attorneys review motions for appropriate relief filed by attorneys, legal advocates, and incarcerated people.
Deberry says there are cases that her office revisited that would not have had the same results under her regime. (Two previous Durham County district attorneys have been ousted from office because of prosecutorial misconduct allegations.)
In one case, Deberry says that had the prosecutor considered the accused’s circumstances and listened to the victim’s wishes, that person wouldn’t have been sentenced to 11 years in prison for attempting to steal. Instead, the accused would have received drug treatment, Deberry says.
“But rather than do any of those things, the prosecutor at the time chose to not only prosecute her, but prosecute her as a habitual felon — because she certainly had previous low-level felonies — and enhance her to a sentencing level that was equivalent to her being charged with second-degree rape,” Deberry says.
There is some resistance from other chief prosecutors to exercise the PIR law or to review motions for appropriate relief requests in their respective states, Deberry and Woodley say.
“We want to encourage people to understand that as prosecutors, justice doesn’t end at the time of sentencing. Justice is an ongoing thing that we should be engaging in as prosecutor offices, where you can, and if the resources allow,” Woodley says.
Hillary Blout, the founder of For The People, conceptualized the first enacted PIR law. An earlier version of this story misstated her role.
Dwain Woodley is assistant district attorney for San Diego County. His title was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.