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Matmail:

I just heard about a guy got a life sentence plus 10 years. Recently I heard of someone getting three lifetimes. What does that mean? That guy with life plus 10 years "can't even be considered" for parole till he's 55. What the hell? Can the guy with three lifetimes get out after he's been "born again" three times? Or when he dies, how do they figure out how much longer he has to stay in jail? For anyone in jail, if life is boring and each day seems like a year, does that shorten his sentence?

-- Frank Pospisil, San Diego

Hear that? The faint snipping of scissors as defense attorneys across the county clip your question for their "Desperate Measures: Appellate Division" files. That born-again gambit is particularly tasty. On the other hand, your assumption that a life sentence means the felons will be locked up until they croak is defective. Without knowing the state your desperadoes are in or their crimes or criminal histories, I can only give you a general scenario. To simplify things, let's assume they're homegrown bad boys.

Back in 1977, California became a determinate-sentencing state. That means right there in our Penal Code we spell out how hard we slap your hand depending on whether it's caught in the cookie jar, caught stealing the cookie jar, or caught shooting up the cookie jar with a machine pistol.

These days there's no such sentence as plain old life; it's either life with or life without. And I don't mean fries. Say you do some really, really nasty thing that the legislature figured deserves banishment; the sentence will be life without the possibility of parole. Period. Bye-bye. But if you do just a really bad thing, and the legislature decided we only want you to go away until our grandchildren are in grad school, the law might specify a sentence of 15 years to life or 25 to life, something like that. That means after serving 15 or 25 years, you can request parole. We can keep turning you down until you finally bite it, but at least you have a glimmer of hope.

So back to your examples. Your three-lifetimes guy maybe committed a triple murder, and he got life without for each victim. With three separate sentences, even if he wiggles out of one on appeal, we still have him on the other two. The life-plus-10 guy, eligible for parole when he's 55, actually was sentenced to, say, 25 to life. Then they added 10 years for some other factor -- maybe because he used a gun in the commission of the crime or because of his past criminal history. He'll have to serve the 25-year minimum plus the 10, for a total of 35 years, before he's eligible for parole. Odds are, your life-plus-10 guy was filed away at age 20, undoubtedly cutting short a promising career.

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