Life after a life sentence: Third strikers released

July 8, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
Inmates sentenced to life in prison are now trickling back into our community after California voters passed a new state law.

Inmates sentenced to life in prison are now trickling back into our community after California voters passed a new state law. Last year's Prop 36 put a dent in a law constructed in Fresno to put repeat offenders in prison, and gave new life to almost 3,000 people who never thought they would get out of prison. Many of them are now struggling to live life after a life sentence.

When the prison doors locked behind Abraham Tubbs in 1997, they were never supposed to open again. His life had reached its lowest point.

"I didn't talk to anybody," Tubbs said. "I just went back into the cell and just shook my head. But I was able to call the next day and talk to my mother and she was like, 'Did you kill anybody? Did you rape anybody?'"

Tubbs did not, but he was going to prison for life. Fresno police arrested him for possession of cocaine and he pled guilty, not knowing two juvenile convictions for violent crimes in the 1970s meant he now had three strikes and no chance for early release.

"Yeah, those are hopeless times," Tubbs said. "But I believe in the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ."

Hope returned for Tubbs last year, when voters passed Prop 36. It cracked the prison doors for almost 3,000 California lifers whose third strike conviction wasn't considered serious or violent.

"I know as far as my past, something I did was in the past, but now I'm a different man," said Ernest Allen. "I'm an older man."

Allen is ike Tubbs one of 55 lifers up for re-sentencing in Fresno County. Every Friday, Judge Jon Conklin hears their cases.

"We'll just look at every case separately and decide based upon their pre-incarceration offenses and their post-sentencing history in the prison whether or not they pose an unreasonable risk," said Conklin.

On this particular day, Judge Conklin ordered a mental health review for Allen. But he brought Gilbert Scott to tears resentencing him to the maximum 11 years in prison for a burglary that became his third strike. Scott will be reunited with his family this month after 16 years in prison.

"We miss him greatly and we're ecstatic right now to know he's been released," said Scott's nephew, Archie Byrd.

His release, though, is a thorn in the side of Mike Reynolds the Fresno man who helped author the original Three Strikes law after his daughter, Kimber, was murdered by repeat offenders in 1992.

"When you release offenders that you know are serious and violent and turn them back on to our streets, that's unconscionable," Reynolds said.

Defense attorneys point out that most of the men re-sentenced under the new law are in their fifties and sixties, an age group far less likely to commit new crimes. But Prop 36 included no provision for oversight. Reynolds says they will eventually have oversight again, back in prison.

"They're going to come back," Renolds said. "They're going to come back with new crimes, a very large number of them."

Judge Conklin and prosecutor Doug Treisman try to nudge the inmates towards post-release community supervision, but they can't force it. So, many inmates walk out of prison with no support. All Tubbs got was $200 and a ride to McDonald's.

"I'm thinking about McDonald's and the menu must be drastically different than it was," an Action News reporter told Tubbs.

"And expensive and small," Tubbs said.

"What else is different out here?" the reporter asked.

"Um, people are different," he said.

The world is a lot different since Tubbs went away. He says the worst change during his incarceration was his mother's deathy, December 30, 2011, about four years after he would've been released under his new sentence.

"If you had been sentenced the normal sentence for that drug possession, you'd have long since been out," the reporter said to Tubbs.

"Yes," Tubds said.

"Do you think the Three Strikes law robbed you of that opportunity to be there when your mom was buried?" the reporter asked.

"Sure," Tubs said. "It robbed me."

Now homeless, Tubbs walks a tightrope to avoid trouble that could put him back in prison. He immediately checked into a drug treatment facility to stay a step ahead of his demons. And he plans to attend college online to become a paralegal or a counselor. But freedom alone is not enough to bring him joy.

"Are you happy now?" the reporter asked Tubbs.

"I'm content now," Tubbs said. "Happiness, to me, would be the picket fence, my own things."

At age 52, Abraham Tubbs finally has the rest of his life to get there.

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