The Pena family is gearing up for the best Christmas in years.
That's because 44-year-old Manuel Pena of Richmond will be home for the holidays, after spending 18 years in prison for stealing a pair of tennis shoes and a wallet. His prior crimes had been for robberies in the late 1980s.
His family hugged, and even wept a little, upon hearing that he will be released from prison in five days or less. His father was in tears.
Contra Costa County judge Clare Maier on Monday held the county's first hearing to consider early release for the three inmates who qualify for re-sentencing under Proposition 36, which included the fates of Pena, and two other inmates: Rudoph Casillas and Kelly Lee Starnes.
During the brief hearing, Maier signed an order releasing Pena and the other two. She told the families "congratulations" at the end of the hearing. None of the men were actually at the hearing on Monday and they will be told of the good news when their public defenders write them a letter about it.
Pena was one of the first people sentenced under California's Three Strikes law, and on Monday, he became one of the first inmates in the state released thanks to Prop. 36, the voter approved measure prohibiting judges from imposing a life sentence on repeat offenders who commit minor crimes.
Before the passage of Prop. 36, anyone who committed two serious felonies could be sent to prison for 25 years even if the third crime was not serious. Prop. 36 now makes only a violent or serious felony count as a "third strike."
Those who opposed Prop. 36 during the November election had argued that the proposition would release dangerous criminals, and that the initiative was so flawed, that felons would be released without any supervision. There was no one in court Monday who came to oppose the inmates' release.
Pena's third offense was for petty theft. He was sentenced to life under the Three Strikes Law when he was 26 years old, and he's been in prison for 18 years. Pena's sisters were thrilled that he was released. Before the judge ruled with the good news, Michelle Pena said she had butterflies in her stomach. "I'm hoping he'll have another chance to make a life for himself. He's served enough time," she said.
She said Pena's family, including his daughter and grandchildren, can't wait to have him home" "We"ll get to know him all over again."
Starnes' third strike stemmed from a high speed chase in 1995. His family said he was on drugs and police found a gun in his car, which counted as a felony for having a firearm in his possession. The Contra Costa County District Attorney agreed he has paid enough time for his offense. Starnes' wife was at the hearing. The couple has since divorced but she said she will re-marry him if he is released.
Casillas, 67, had two priors of burglary and robbery. His third strike was for domestic violence. He's been in prison since 1994.
It's unclear how many if any Prop. 36 inmates have been released statewide since the November election. The three in Contra Costa County are the county's first. Elsewhere, the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office said it has not released anyone who is eligible for re-sentencing under Prop. 36 yet.
A spokesman there said the county has requested prison records on eligible inmates and has not yet received any. Santa Clara County is at least a few months away from seeing anyone being released.