3 Strikes

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Prop. 36: No Life Sentence for ’3rd Strike’ if Nonviolent

By Michael Montgomery

This story was co-reported by Monica Lam in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting 

(Monica Lam: CIR)

Members of a San Quentin self-help group for three-strikers meet with reporter Michael Montgomery. Most say they are here for non-violent crimes. (Monica Lam: CIR)

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.

“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.”

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. Continue reading