Susan Champion found her first client in 2009. She was an enthusiastic student at Stanford Law School, and he was serving a life sentence in a California state prison. The crime that put him away for life? Three relatively minor thefts.
High on meth, he used a key hidden under a mat to sneak into his mother’s house and steal her VCR player, wanting to sell it for more drugs. Strike one.
He did his time. Got sober. But soon after he got out of the pen, he relapsed. On the waiting list for a bed at a rehab facility, he was homeless, sleeping outside in the bushes. One day, the police picked him up at a bus stop and found items in his backpack that had been reported missing in a daytime break-in. Strike two.
After being released from prison a second time, he committed a third burglary, stealing beer steins from someone’s commercial storage unit and trying to sell them at a flea market. Strike three.
Under California’s Three Strikes sentencing law, “persistent offenders” at the time had to be incarcerated for 25 years to life if a third felony was preceded by two crimes that were “serious or violent,” even if the last felony didn’t meet those criteria. Because of the stringent rule, this man was sentenced to life in prison without parole, simply for swiping a few mugs.
Champion submitted a habeas corpus petition (a motion asking the courts to review his detention) on her client’s behalf to determine if life for stealing beer glasses counted as cruel and unusual punishment. She won the case, convincing the judge that his sentence had been disproportional to the crime. Since then, she’s stayed on at Stanford to help many more like him through the law school’s Three Strikes Project.
The Three Strikes Project is currently the only legal organization in California working to reverse excessive sentences for minor crimes. Michael Romano, a law school professor and the program’s director, realized the need for services like it while clerking for the Ninth Circuit Court: Since there’s no right to legal counsel for habeas corpus petitions, convicts were sending in handwritten documents to his court, pleading with justices to take another look at their case. Since the project was institutionalized as one of Stanford’s 11 legal clinics in 2006, more than 1,000 inmates have sent letters to the school asking for pro bono assistance. The clinic currently represents 25 individuals and has already freed or reduced prison sentences for dozens more. So far, Champion, Romano and their students haven’t lost a case. Each time, they’ve convinced a judge to immediately release the prisoner or commute the lengthy sentence.
Champion became a lawyer late in life — at age 40 — to fight systemic injustice, like the Three Strikes Law’s misguided “one-size-fits-all” approach or jailing of the mentally ill. After working for years in a hospital that catered to the formerly incarcerated, non-English speakers, mentally ill and others “dealing with incredibly challenging circumstances,” Champion planned to study the intersection of mental health and criminal justice. But after her first year of law school was spent in required classes that focused on contracts and civil procedure, “stuff that doesn’t seem relevant to anything, let alone social justice issues,” Champion wondered if she’d made the right choice.
A job at the San Francisco district attorney’s office while still in school led her to focus directly on sentencing. In preliminary hearings — an early part of a case during which the judge decides if there’s enough evidence for a trial — Champion “saw a parade of poor black people. They were the only people coming in and out. It was just so stark and heartbreaking to see that’s what we’re doing with people who could be leading productive lives.” When California’s Three Strikes law appeared on the ballot, it promised “to keep murderers, rapists and child molesters behind bars, where they belong,” but those were not the people that Champion saw filling the courtroom.
In the early 1990s, the bill that initially proposed Three Strikes languished in Sacramento — until a horrific murder spurred a frantic campaign to crack down on crime. In October 1993, Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old with dimpled cheeks and a fondness for floral-print dresses, was abducted from her home in Petaluma, a small farm town in Sonoma County. Richard Allen Davis, a career criminal whose rap sheet included kidnapping and assault, broke into the three-bedroom home during a slumber party, bound and gagged two other girls and kidnapped Klaas while her mother slept nearby. Two months later, police found Klaas’s body on a trash pile adjacent to a freeway off-ramp, badly decomposed. Before Davis was convicted, legislators passed a slew of tough reforms, including Three Strikes. The measure was approved by a ballot initiative, winning approval from 72 percent of voters.
Since then, California’s Three Strikes Law — the first and harshest mandatory sentencing guideline of its kind — has been responsible for sending 46,000 inmates to prison for 25 years to life within the first decade since it passed in 1994, a government analysis found. Together, these “strikers” made up roughly one-quarter of California’s already overcrowded prison population.
Twenty years later, the need for change was also voiced through popular approval. In collaboration with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Romano and Champion helped draft the text of a statewide ballot measure (Proposition 36) to modify the law. The Three Strikes Reform Act captured more than two-thirds of the vote. Surprisingly, voters weren’t persuaded by arguments about the cost of prison as much as the law’s inherent unfairness, Champion says, referencing internal polls. As written, the original law could assign the same harsh penalty to the psychotic kidnapper whose crimes escalated to murders as the guy who faltered by stealing golf clubs, a disparity that seemed particularly unfair to voters, especially when it meant the difference between life in notorious San Quentin versus a few months at the local jail. “They thought an injustice had been done. What they thought they’d voted for in 1994 was not what they’d seen result. In fact, quite a few of our clients’ families voted for Three Strikes and would tell me after they never would have voted for it if they knew it would put someone like their loved one away when they might have just had a drug problem.”
Adding to the law’s insults was the fact that within California’s penal code, certain crimes are classified as “wobblers” meaning that people who commit them can either be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the district attorney’s judgment. Because the third of the three strikes could have been applied to any felony — not merely a serious or violent one — a prosecutor could jail someone for life for a crime that might have been charged as a misdemeanor elsewhere in the state. With the passage of Prop 36, judges regained discretion over sentencing, so that the punishment would fit the crime, not public hysteria or prosecutors’ ambitions. It’s part of the reason why after the reform passed, hundreds of prisoners from “tough-on-crime” strongholds like Orange, San Bernardino and Kern Counties were eligible to have their cases reviewed, while only three from liberal San Francisco qualified.
The spike in crime that opponents of Prop 36 predicted never came to pass. Of 2,000 former lifers released under the reform, only 4.7 percent have re-offended (over an 18-month period, on average) — far below California’s usual recidivism rate of 45.2 percent over a one-year period and 56.9 percent over two years. Additionally, the change in the law made 3,000 second-strikers who’d been incarcerated for a third non-violent, non-serious offense eligible to appeal their sentence to a judge. There are still 700 cases pending (mostly in Los Angeles), Champion says, but those who have been released have largely kept out of trouble. Only one in 20 reoffended, and those were largely for theft or drug charges.
“I hope the enduring lesson is that people are not hopeless recidivists,” Romano tells the New York Times. “Those who remain dangerous should be kept behind bars. But there are many people in prison who are no threat to public safety.”
Champion will tell you her clients are no angels. Unlike the famed Innocence Project, which uses DNA testing to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, Champion says her colleague “Mike [Romano] calls us the Guilty Project. It’s true, we never claim that our clients are innocent, that’s never the basis of our argument,” she says. The prisoners broke the law — three times, at least — but her work is proving that slamming the convicts behind bars isn’t the solution.
They may not be saints, but they’re not monsters either.