By Michael Montgomery
This story was co-reported by Monica Lam in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting
Some 26 states have passed “three strikes” laws, which impose long prison terms for repeat offenders. But only in California can prosecutors seek a life sentence, even if the third strike is for a relatively minor felony, like drug possession. That could change, if voters approve Proposition 36 on the ballot this November.
In 1997 Norman Williams was sent to state prison for a 25-to-life sentence. His crime: stealing a jack from a tow truck in Long Beach. Because Williams had two previous burglary convictions, he was swept up by California’s three strikes law. Williams was sent to a maximum-security lockup alongside murderers, rapists and other violent criminals.
“I never wanted to do my whole life in prison. Nobody wants to be caged like that,” says Williams.
But thanks to the help of an attorney and some Stanford Law School students, Williams got out. On a recent day, I met him in front of a halfway house in San Jose, where he directs cleaning crews for a program that provides work for ex-offenders. Williams says cleaning, especially floors, is the only thing he learned while locked up.
“In prison it’s long halls, and we had to clean those on a daily basis. The only thing I could do is work inside the prison,” Williams says.
Today, Williams is one of about two dozen three-strikers who have won their release through the work of a Stanford University law clinic founded by Mike Romano. In William’s case, the prosecutor actually agreed that the sentence was too harsh, and Romano got it amended. An idea emerged from this experience: Why not draft a ballot initiative to ensure that stories like William’s won’t be repeated?
“When people originally passed the three strikes law in ‘94 the campaigns were about keeping serious and violent murderers, child molesters in prison for the rest of their lives,” Romano says. “I think that’s what people want and are kind of shocked to hear that people have been sentenced to life for petty theft.”
Romano helped write Proposition 36 on the ballot next month. It would amend state law so felons could be sentenced to life only if their third strike was for a serious or violent crime. However, three strikes could still apply to felons with a violent past, even if their third strike is a minor crime. Current three-strikers could appeal their sentences if their last conviction was non-serious and non-violent. The Yes on 36 campaign has gathered support from across the political spectrum and is focusing its message on the costs of enforcing three strikes.
One video posted on the campaign’s website features a woman, Kelly Turner, who was convicted of 25-to-life for forgery under the three strikes law. She got out on a technicality, and in the political ad she tells viewers, “What you should care about are the $100 million that are being spent on thousands of people that are locked up for non-violent offenses that are taking away from our education system.”
“The focus has to be on community safety,” says Carl Adams, who heads the California District Attorney’s Association. He is speaking out against Proposition 36. At a recent assembly hearing in Sacramento, Adams told lawmakers that apart from a few big city prosecutors, most district attorneys around the state believe three strikes should stand as it is.
“We want to remove the worst offenders from society for the sake of our communities, and we want to do it no matter what it costs,” says Adams.
Adams and other opponents of Proposition 36 say prosecutors today are using the current law judiciously, pointing out that more than 80 percent of three-strikers were sentenced prior to 2000. Still, they say the law remains an important tool to get the most dangerous criminals off the streets.
Marc Klaas is among the state’s fiercest defenders of the current three strikes law. The murder of his daughter Polly at the hands of a career criminal fueled the three strikes movement. “I don’t know why anybody would want to fix something that doesn’t require fixing,” he says. “It’s really about preventing future victimizations, and I think that far, far, many, many crimes have been prevented as a result of this controversial but effective policy.”
Today, around 9,000 inmates are serving life terms under the three strikes law. For about half those inmates, the third strike was a non-violent offense.
At San Quentin prison, inmates formed a self-help group called “Hope for Strikers.” They meet regularly in prison’s chapel just off the main entrance. Most of the men in this group say they are here for non-violent crimes. Some even voted for the original three strikes law. Joey Mason, who lived in Petaluma, remembers the frenzy surrounding the abduction and murder of Polly Klaas.
“It devastated a lot of people,” says Mason, “I never believed that three strikes was going to go after us men,” says Mason.
Another inmate, Sajad Shakoor, says he also supported three strikes, not knowing it would land him in prison on a life sentence for instigating a fistfight.
“I thought it was a good law, to be honest with you, because it was sold as a, ‘if you cannot stay out of prison, then chances are you probably belong in prison,’” says Shakoor.
If voters decide to amend the three strikes law, some 1,500 inmates could petition to have their sentences reduced, although not many of the men in this group would be eligible. That’s because their crimes — burglary and drug dealing — still qualify as a third strike.
“Prop 36 is not going to affect a lot of people. It’s going to affect a very small group of three-strikers,” says Shakoor.
Still, Shakoor is one of the few who could see his freedom, because his crime — inciting the fight — wouldn’t qualify as a third strike.
“It’s a lot of responsibility on us to go out there and not just to transition to society in meaningful ways, but to be leaders,” he says.
While opponents of Proposition 36 argue the early release of any three striker is too big a risk for California, its backers point to the example set by the three-strikers who have been let out. Of the 26 people who have won their release through the Stanford law clinic, the supporters say, all but one has stayed out of prison.
A recent Field Poll showed 70 percent of likely voters support the idea of limiting the state’s Three Strikes Law.
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