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June 6, 2013
Stanford Law's Three Strikes Project works for fair implementation of new statute
Stanford Law School's Three Strikes Project, the only such program in the country, helped change the California statute on repeat offenders and is now working to ensure the policy is implemented fairly.
By Brooke Donald
Professor David Mills at an event where the architects and beneficiaries of Proposition 36 gathered to discuss how California's Three Strikes Law was reformed. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)
Outside the office of the Three Strikes Project in the basement of Stanford Law School are rows of boxes, each stuffed with letters from inmates or their families from across California.
The letters are full of stories. Stories about how stealing loose change from a parked car or shoplifting from a mall or being caught with a tiny amount of drugs resulted in a life sentence in prison.
The letters ask for help. And for several years now, Stanford law students and their professors have been giving it.
"You shouldn't lose your life for that kind of stuff. It's unconscionable," said Kristen Bell, a third-year law student and member of the Third Strikes Project.
Since 2006, students and staff of the program, which works to reduce the sentences of inmates believed to have been given disproportionate punishments under California's Three Strikes law, have successfully argued 25 cases. It's the only such program in the country.
Last year they successfully took on a new task – changing the law – and are now working to ensure the amended statute is implemented fairly.
"It's purely a question of justice," said David Mills, the Stanford professor and founder of the school's Clinical Education program who spearheaded the push to reform the law. "It was obvious something needed to be done."
And you're out
California's Three Strikes law passed with overwhelming voter support in 1994. Aimed at keeping repeat violent offenders off the streets, the law imposed a life sentence for any felony conviction if the individual had two previous serious felony convictions.
Since its passage, nearly 9,000 people have been convicted under the law – more than half, however, for nonviolent crimes. The Three Strikes Project represents those nonviolent offenders.
"These are not serial rapists we happen to get off the street because we caught them stealing a radio from a parked car," says Michael Romano, the director of the project. "These people are generally homeless drug addicts. Have they committed crimes? Absolutely. Do they deserve to be punished? Absolutely. But we think that a life sentence for these crimes is unjust, it's disproportionate, it's not what the voters wanted, it doesn't improve public safety at all."
The law also disproportionately affects minority populations and the mentally ill, according to prison statistics.
"There is an over-incarceration of poor minorities that affects families, communities, society," Mills said. "We've become very punitive as a society, and lost a lot of compassion. There is a desperate need for rethinking how we punish people so that folks do not have to find themselves in these horrifying conditions."
The new law, which passed in November as Proposition 36, imposes a life sentence if the third felony conviction is "serious or violent" or if the perpetrator of a third felony was previously convicted of murder, rape or sexual assault on a child.
Students and staff involved with the Three Strikes Project, in collaboration with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, drafted the proposition, giving consideration to exceptions and looking at how to maintain public safety.
"The Three Strikes Project, as it was, was good training for students, and that's why it was started," Mills said. "But there wasn't a great opportunity to make huge change. There are thousands of people in prison that shouldn't be there."
Proposition 36 is starting to make that bigger change. Because it's retroactive, the new law is giving hope to thousands of inmates and their families that their sentences for nonviolent crimes can be reduced.
The Three Strikes Project is working with public defenders to make sure Proposition 36 is implemented justly, and students are helping develop reentry plans, drug treatment and job training for inmates eligible to get out of prison.
The project is still representing individual clients with petitions for new hearings and establishing that they aren't a risk to public safety. About 500 inmates have been released since Proposition 36's passage.
Mills recently spoke about the campaign at Stanford Law School.
'Over the moon'
Shane Taylor, a Three Strikes Project client who served more than 15 years of a life sentence for drug possession before he was released, said he couldn't believe it when he learned of his punishment more than a dozen years ago.
"I couldn't talk anymore," he recalled in a recent interview. "I figured it'd be one or two years. My third strike was for $5 worth of meth."
Taylor's case came to the Three Strikes Project from the judge who sentenced him. The judge, Howard Broadman, called the Law School saying he regretted his decision and asked the Three Strikes Project to help.
"I was just blown away he had been in prison for that long," said Sherri Hansen, a second-year law student who represented Taylor. "How can we have a system that allows this to happen?"
Hansen said she was "over the moon" when Taylor was finally released this spring. Reunited with his family, Taylor now works in Bakersfield on a farm.
"When the day came when I packed up my stuff and walked out that gate – wow," he said.
Mills said it's important for the law students to have this type of experience so "when they become rich and successful, they will not lose track of the fact that they also have the opportunity to really help people out."
"It's incredibly rewarding," adds Romano. "When the judge says, 'You know, you're right. We're going to resentence and release your client' – it is incredibly emotional."
Romano said the students realize when they're investigating the cases that nobody – from teachers to social workers to public defenders – has effectively advocated for the inmates their whole lives.
"It was great," Bell said of winning the release of her client, whose third strike was aiding and abetting the sale of $20 worth of crack cocaine. "He just sent me a picture of him and his wife. They just got married."