“Yeah, if not, I’d still be there, staring at the walls,” Williams said. “Never had visitors before you came. I didn’t know what the visiting room looked like.”
IN 1994, the three-strikes ballot measure in California passed with 72 percent of the vote, after the searing murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, who was kidnapped from her slumber party and murdered while her mother slept down the hall. When the killer turned out to be a violent offender recently granted parole, support surged for the three-strikes ballot initiative, which promised to keep “career criminals who women, molest children and commit murder behind bars where they belong.”
The complete text of the bill swept far more broadly. Under California’s version of three strikes, first and second strikes must be either violent or serious. These include crimes like murder, attempted murder, rape, child molestation and armed robbery. But in California, “serious” is a term of art that can also include crimes like Norman Williams’s nonconfrontational burglaries. And after a second-strike conviction for such an offense, almost any infraction beyond jaywalking can trigger a third strike and the life sentence that goes with it. One of Romano’s clients was sentenced to life for stealing a dollar in change from the coin box of a parked car.
California’s repeat-offender law is unique in this stringency. Twenty-five other states have passed three-strikes laws, but only California punishes minor crimes with the penalty of a life sentence. About 3,700 prisoners in the state are serving life for a third strike that was neither violent nor serious, according to the legal definition. That’s more than 40 percent of the total third-strike population of about 8,500. Technically, these offenders are eligible for parole after 20 years, but at the moment, the state parole board rarely releases any prisoner early.
In 2004, reformers put an initiative on the ballot, Proposition 66, that would have reduced the number of people going to prison for life by removing nonviolent property and drug offenses from the list of three-strikes crimes. Gov. attacked the ballot measure. He credited three strikes for a major drop in crime — to the frustration of most experts, who point out that California’s dip began in 1991, well before three strikes passed, and ended in 2000. “The great weight of empirical studies discounts the role of three strikes in reducing crime,” states a 2004 report signed by six criminal-law professors, including Franklin Zimring at U.C. . Still, Prop 66 fell short, with 47 percent of the vote.
Now California is in the midst of fiscal calamity. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had been a judge in California, recently bemoaned state sentencing and spending on prisons. In an address at , he said that “the three-strikes law sponsor is the correctional officers’ union, and that is sick!” And yet Schwarzenegger has vowed not to touch the law. and Jerry Brown, the leading Republican and Democratic contenders to succeed him in November, are just as unbending.
IF THERE’S A WAY to reform three strikes, it may follow Norman Williams’s route out of prison. Michael Romano, who is 38, got his client released without opposition from the L.A. district attorney by forging a working relationship with Cooley’s office. The 63-year-old Republican prosecutor seems an unlikely ally for a young defense lawyer. He joined the D.A.’s office straight out of law school. His office notched more death sentences last year than the state of , and his lunchmates include , the former governor who signed three strikes into law. Yet despite his conservative bona fides, Cooley shares the conviction that some number of third-strike offenders like Norman Williams don’t belong in prison for life.
After three strikes became law, Cooley watched one of his colleagues in the D.A.’s office prosecute Gregory Taylor, a homeless man who at dawn one morning in 1997 went to a church where he’d often gotten meals and pried open the door to its food pantry. The priest later testified on his behalf. Taylor’s first crime was a purse-snatching; his second was attempting to steal a wallet. He didn’t hurt anyone. Taylor was sentenced to life. “It was almost one-upmanship, almost a game — bye-bye for life,” Cooley says, remembering the attitude in the office.
Three years later, Cooley ran for D.A. on a platform of restrained three-strikes enforcement, calling the law “a necessary weapon, one that must be used with precision and not in a scatter-gun fashion.” In office, he turned his critique into policy. The L.A. district attorney’s office no longer seeks life sentences for offenders like Norman Williams or Gregory Taylor. The presumption is that prosecutors ask for a life sentence only if a third-strike crime is violent or serious. Petty thieves and most drug offenders are presumed to merit a double sentence, the penalty for a second strike, unless their previous record includes a hard-core crime like murder, armed robbery, sexual assault or possession of large quantities of drugs. During Cooley’s first year in office, three-strikes convictions in Los Angeles County triggering life sentences dropped 39 percent. No other prosecutor’s office in California has a written policy like Cooley’s, though a couple of D.A.’s informally exercise similar discretion.
It’s a mistake, though, to cast Cooley as a full-tilt reformer. He opposed Prop 66 for ignoring a defendant’s criminal history. Instead, in 2006, he offered up his own bill, which tracked his policy as D.A., taking minor drug crimes and petty theft off the list of three-strikes offenses unless one of the first two strikes involved a crime that Cooley considers hard-core. For staking out even this middle ground, Cooley became prosecutor non grata among his fellow D.A.’s. No district attorney, not even the most liberal, supported his bill, and it died in Senate committee.
Cooley could once again pay a price for his three-strikes record. This spring, he announced his candidacy for California attorney general. His Republican rivals have hammered him for his moderate stance. “He’s acting as an enabler for habitual offenders,” State Senator Tom Harman told me. “I think that’s wrong. I want to put them in prison.” The race has developed into a litmus test: for 15 years, no serious candidate for major statewide office has dared to criticize three strikes. If Cooley makes it through his party’s primary on June 8 — and especially if he goes on to win in November — the law will no longer seem untouchable. If he loses, three strikes will be all the more difficult to dislodge.
MICHAEL ROMANO has another, complementary strategy for changing the law. He has won victories for 13 three-strikes lifers in two years, 5 of them with the help of Cooley’s office, and he sees that small number of victories as making a case for larger reform. (He was on a panel I moderated at Yale Law School last month.) While that may sound far-fetched, the tactic has worked before. Romano’s boss, Lawrence Marshall, helped prove the innocence of 13 death-row inmates in in the late 1990s. His work set in motion a reassessment of the death penalty. A result was a statewide moratorium on executions that has held for a decade. “The hardest step is to get people’s attention,” says Marshall, associate dean for clinical education at Stanford. “And you can only get it with sympathetic cases.”
Romano started thinking about three strikes when he clerked for Judge Richard Tallman on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2004. One afternoon, Romano watched his boss and two other judges quickly dispense with routine matters. One of them was a three-strikes appeal. “This guy, Willie Joseph, was doing life for aiding and abetting a $5 sale of crack cocaine,” Romano remembers. Legally speaking, his case for release was so weak that it took the judges “less than a few minutes” to reject the appeal.
And yet Willie Joseph’s life sentence was effectively the same as the punishment imposed on the most vicious killers in California. While 694 convicted murderers sit on the state’s death row, only 13 have been executed since the Supreme Court allowed for reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. The 3,700 nonviolent, nonserious three-strikers serving life in California outnumber the 3,263 death-row inmates nationwide.
By working with three-strikers, Romano is trying to highlight the plight of criminals he sees as more pathetic than heinous. “I think about explaining to my kids what I do, and I see no moral ambiguity,” Romano says about his work. Capital defendants, of course, deserve representation, he explains. “But there are other lives to be saved, of people who haven’t done horrible things, who haven’t actually hurt anyone.”
In practical terms, Romano points out, the difference between being convicted of capital murder and a small-time third strike is this: a murderer is entitled to a far greater share of legal resources. California spends at least $300,000 on the defense side of a capital murder trial. The courts give extra scrutiny to each capital appeal that comes before them. And it’s only in death-penalty cases that the state pays lawyers to file a writ of , the route to challenging a conviction once direct appeal has been exhausted.
A three-strikes case, by contrast, is just one more file in the stack on a public defender’s desk and a judge’s docket. Romano has a client whose appellate lawyer cut and pasted into her brief for him the more serious criminal history of another man — incorrectly telling the judges that her client was far more violent when he actually was.
In court, Romano and his students don’t simply argue that their clients are minor offenders who don’t deserve to spend the rest of their lives in prison. That route to release is mostly blocked by the Supreme Court’s twin rulings on three strikes. In 2003, the justices voted 5-4 to reject the argument that three strikes violates the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel-and-unusual punishment. Because of criminal histories, the high court let stand the life sentences for Leandro Andrade, convicted of a third strike when he shoplifted videotapes from two Kmarts, and Gary Ewing, who walked out of a store with three clubs in a leg of his pants.
But the California Supreme Court has left open a different route to appeal. In 1998, the court told trial judges who were weighing a bid for leniency at sentencing after a three-strikes conviction that they could consider whether a defendant’s “background, character and prospects” place him outside the “spirit” of three strikes.
Romano argues that, as in capital cases, his clients deserve to ask for lesser sentences based on “mitigating evidence” — often of child abuse, mental illness or . Romano’s students track down clients’ old files, ask about their childhoods and pry confirmation out of family members. From Norman Williams’s juvenile files and probation reports, Romano’s students pieced together a story of unbroken woe. The 8th of 12 children, Williams grew up with a mother who was a binge drinker. She pimped out Williams and his brothers to men she knew. A social worker wrote, “These men paid the boys money to perform anal intercourse on the boys and they . . . gave the money to their mother for wine.” As an adult, Williams became a cocaine addict and lived on the streets of Long Beach.
Romano’s students laid out this mitigating evidence, which hadn’t been introduced at trial, in a 56-page habeas brief before the state court in Long Beach last year. They got back a one-sentence order denying their claim.
Frustrated, Romano took the habeas petition to one of Cooley’s deputies, Brentford Ferreira. Would he agree that after 12 years in prison, Williams had done enough time? Would he say so to the judge?
Ferreira, a 24-year veteran prosecutor, fired back with questions of his own. “I said, O.K., what you’ve really shown me is that all this guy knows how to do is steal,” he remembers. “So why should I let him out? What are you going to do for him?” Romano knew that Ferreira was right. If just one of his clients got out and hurt someone the whole project would look menacing rather than crusading. Defense lawyers don’t usually act like social workers, but it was vital for Romano and his students to come up with a plan and a home for Williams, from the moment he walked out of Folsom.
Romano’s efforts to help Williams succeed on the outside led him to Eileen Richardson. Once the C.E.O. of Napster, she now runs a $500,000 program, the Downtown Streets Team, which contracts with the city of Palo Alto and local nonprofits to provide janitorial services. The work is done by former offenders and homeless people. Richardson pays them in rent subsidies and and gift cards. They attend a weekly support meeting and wear different colored T-shirts as they move up a “ladder of success.”
With Richardson’s promise to give Williams a try, Romano persuaded Ferreira to go with him to see the judge in Long Beach. The prosecutor’s support made the difference: Williams was resentenced to time served. Shortly after he left Folsom a year ago, he started on the Streets Team mopping and waxing the floors of a local shelter. Richardson says Williams hasn’t missed a day of work since.
IF STEVE COOLEY wins the Republican primary for attorney general, on almost every issue — most visibly the death penalty — he’ll run to the right of his probable Democratic opponent, the San Francisco district attorney Kamala Harris. But on three strikes, Cooley will run to Harris’s left. (She didn’t support his 2006 proposal, though she is one of the prosecutors who, on a case-by-case basis, refrains from seeking a life sentence for some nonviolent three-strikers.) It’s a reminder of how far the prosecution of Gregory Taylor, the homeless man who broke into the church, has taken Cooley from the expected comfort zone of a prosecutor.
Cooley is couching his support for amending three strikes statewide more carefully during campaign season. “Any changes to the three-strikes law will have to be in the context of overall prison reform,” he told me in March. At the same time, Romano and Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes, the group that fought for Proposition 66, are increasingly interested in using Cooley’s Los Angeles policy as the basis for a new statewide reform effort in 2012, because it suggests a way to reserve life sentences for the three-strikers who have committed crimes of violence.
Between 2001 and 2008, the Los Angeles D.A.’s office automatically sought life sentences for about 5,400 repeat offenders whose third strike was violent or serious. The office also screened 13,900 cases in which the third strike crime was neither violent nor serious, to find out whether the defendant had a past record of hard-core crimes. During these years, prosecutors asked for life in only 25 percent of these cases. The other 75 percent are the nonviolent three-strikers whom the law could safely be amended to spare, Romano argues. “Those are the folks who shouldn’t be doing life,” he says. If Cooley becomes attorney general, he’d have more clout to put behind a 2012 reform initiative, if he chose to.
Norman Williams will soon move into his own apartment in Palo Alto. None of the other clients for whom the Stanford clinic has won release have gotten in trouble. And Romano and his students recently started representing Gregory Taylor, who is still serving life in prison.
he’s out In an online video, Norman Williams talks about being released from prison after being sentenced to life.Continue reading the main story
Three strikes law in American legislation turned into a very contraversary issue in American society and in legislature of separate states as it created an excellent soil for a number of political speculations on the hand with serious issues in criminology and court practices. Three strikes law is a category of statutes, which demand from courts compulsory and extended terms of incarceration, to those criminals who have convicted in serious crimes of 3 or more separate occasions. These statutes are also known among lawyers as habitual offender laws.
Rationality of these principles is the following: person who had committed a number of felonies (three or more) is recidivist, and extended term of incarceration will provide public safety and will protect society from such individuals. This term comes from baseball game, where batter has two strikes before he is out.
In more general view three strikes law was a key point of the national crime prevention policy, which was promoting in 1980s and in 1990s:
âLike many states, California began toughening its sentencing policies and adding prison capacity in the early 1980s, just as crime rates began a modest five-year decline. In fact, California was the leader among states in this trend, tripling its prison population in the decade since 1982. Between 1984 and 1991, more than 1000 bills were passed by the California legislature to change felony and misdemeanor statutes. Virtually none of these bills decreased sentences. Many lengthened them. This trend culminated in the introduction of several bills in this past legislative session, all of which required imprisonment of repeat felons for 25 years to lifeâ (from Greenwood, p. 5)
Even though that the total number of prisoners grew in the period between 1980 and 1994, surveys showed that the bigger number of people reported to be vulnerable to crime and violence, than in early records. The declining crime records in this period were very modest, but nevertheless it created an excellent soil for political speculations in the election periods for a number of state governors.
The supporters of the three strike law argue that this law will reduce the number of serious felonies committed by recidivists on 22-34% and will continue to work as a prevention method in future. About 30 percent of the crime committed by recidivists are serious crimes which include violent crimes (rape, murder, assaults), the rest of the felonies committed by recidivists are also serious: robberies and assaults. In California it was stated that three strike law will create crime reduction, which âwill be bought at a cost of an extra $4.5 billion to $6.5 billion per year in current dollars, compared to what would have been spent had the previous law remained in effect. The intent of the three-strikes law is, of course, to lock up repeat offenders longer, and that requires the construction and operation of more prisons. Some police and court costs may be saved in not having to deal so often with such offenders once they are locked up, but greater prison costs overwhelm such savings.â (from Greenwood, p. 11-15)
Those who criticize three strike law mention that its practices are too strict for less violent crimes and that their prolonged incarceration will not have positive effects in addition it require to much funds spent of their imprisonment. The opponents for the three strike law also mention that quite often the third strike is a minor felony such as a car theft, which can not be viewed as serious as other crimes, which were mentioned.
In addition opponents of the three strike law require a full research to be made in order to model the outcomes of using this statutes in real life practice. First of all the financial outcomes of this law are not very clear as they have to be, as skepticists want first to know what will be the results if the three strike law will be applied only to serious felonies rather than to minor felonies. In addition, itâs often argued that three strikes law can be simply substituted by full sentence in most of felony cases.
The supporters of the three strike law say the following about this concept:
- It will protect society from chronic criminals, who are dangerous for public and who donât want to correct
- It will function as preventive practice for existing offenders
- It will save funds which are needed to proceed chronic criminals throught the juridical system
- It is the âright thing to do.â Aside from the savings and other effects, justice demands that those who repeatedly cause injury and loss to others have their freedom revoked.
The opponents for the three strike law have the following arguments:
- Three strike law will have little to do with crime prevention as the crime rate in recent years is slowing
- Life sentences for three time offenders will require spending more money in order to support their imprisonment
- The same amount of money applied to measures other than three strikes would reduce crime by a greater amount.
- The third-strike penalty is an unduly harsh one for criminals convicted of certain felonies such as drug possession.
On the hand with speculations of politicians who want to increase their rating by promoting three strike law preventive crime practices and debates of lawyers over this contraversary issue, there is a lot unsolved and unclear for common tax payers, who will have to pay for the realization of this law on practice and who will in many respects feel on themselves whether it functions or not: âTwo years of experience with Three Strikes in California has not quieted debate about the efficacy of the law. Proponents claim victory based on lower crime rates since its passage(7) while opponents point to widely reported cases, involving minor third strikes, leading to grossly disproportionate prison termsâ (Vitiello, 1997)
And it became obvious, there is very small evidence and small analysis of the positive effects probability in case three strike law will be adopted: âThus, although some of the debate is cast in moral terms, most of the disagreements are over questions that lend themselves to quantitative analysis. Little such analysis has appeared. To the average citizen, of course, increased punishment for serious crimes has intuitive appeal. But, as decisions approach in California and other states, voters may want to know just how much crime reduction they are getting for their money. Could they do as well for less money? And just what is the total cost of the law? Citizens are not getting much information on that from the law itself, the media, or their elected representatives. The law bears no explicit price tag; the media are better at depicting crime’s human tragedy than at drawing up balance sheets; and politicians have at last found a cause that will offend no powerful interest group.â (Greenwood, p. 12-15)
The table below shows crime statistics for the state of California, which shows a large difference between high-rate offenders and low-rate offenders. The following table refers to the crime rates of the streets of Californian big cities and shows that average high-rate offender commits two serious violent crimes per year and seven serious crimes, while typical low-rate offender commits one serious crime in the period of 2,5 years. This data shows how the application of three strike law and repeat-offender penalties for such type of criminals can reduce the crime rate and violence in one particular state. The example of California in respects is typical for other states where the crime statistics doesnât differ much.
âOffense rates, however, are not the same as crime rates. If two persons collaborate in a robbery, each one has committed an offense, but there is only one crime. The bottom two panels of the table show the data that permitted ourâ
|Offenses and Crimes per Offender per Year: Index Felonies, California|
|Type of Felony|
|Type of Offender||Violent||Serious Only||Other Index||Total Index|
|Offenses per Offender per Year|
|Offenders per Crime|
|Crimes per Offender per Year|
Making a conclusion I would like to say that three strikes law has a lot of positive outcomes, in case it will be introduced. The crime rate today, even that itâs decreasing still is a matter of concern of a number of Americans. In addition as recent reports show a bigger number of Americans is now vulnerable to crime, which did not take place in earlier decades. Such tendencies have a lot of explanations, as criminals who are released from prison, especially who are released early can not find any decent job and continue their previous life of being outlaw. Statistics given in the table above shows that recidivists, especially those who commit serious crimes are very hard to reform and that mostly them contribute to high crime rate in our society. Thatâs why three strike law to my point of view should have a selective character and very extended imprisonment terms should be applied to serious crime offenders, rather than to minor crime offenders.
1. Greenwood, Peter W. Three Strikes and YouâRe Out: Estimated Benefits and Costs of Californiaâs New Mandatory-Sentencing Law, Rand 1994
2. Vitiello, Michael Three strikes: can we return to rationality Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 87, 1997
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