A Year After Release, Only 2 Percent of Three Strikers Charged With New Crimes

Pete Marin, 52, served 18 years for petty theft under California's 1994 Three Strikes law. (Adithya Sambamurthy/KQED)
Pete Marin, 52, served 18 years for petty theft under California’s 1994 Three Strikes law. (Adithya Sambamurthy/The Center for Investigative Reporting)

A little more than a year ago, Californians voted for Proposition 36, allowing the release of three-strikers convicted of non-violent, non-serious crimes. Since then, about 1,000 people have been released. KQED’s Michael Montgomery followed three men as they left prison and adapted to their new lives outside, and interviewed multiple experts and stakeholders about the state’s criminal justice system.

Convicted of stealing two car alarms from a Walgreens store, Richard Brown spent 18 years in prison under California’s notorious Three Strikes law. Then, quite suddenly, he was standing outside the gates of San Quentin earlier this year, a free man.

“They told me to get off the property,” he says. “I asked if there was a phone booth or something. They said no.”

For Robert Watts, who served 13 years for receiving stolen property, getting out of prison involved an emotional legal tangle with local prosecutors who insisted he was an unredeemed career criminal and should remain behind bars.

“It was unpleasant,” he says. “But at least it’s over.”

For both men, freedom came as the result of Proposition 36, the ballot initiative approved last year by voters in every county in California.

The measure changed the 1994 law that had allowed judges to impose life sentences for low-level felonies such as petty theft and drug possession. The new law focuses on serious and violent crimes. It’s also retroactive, allowing current inmates whose third strike was non-violent and non-serious to petition the courts for resentencing and possible release.

Opponents of the measure have argued that the original Three Strikes law worked well and contributed to a dramatic fall in violent crime over the past two decades. Granting some inmates early release, they said, would lead to a spike in crime.

“I guarantee that a significant percentage of them are going to re-offend, and re-offend in serious ways,” said Ed Jagels, the former District Attorney for Kern County.

Opponents also said prosecutors today are using the law judiciously, pointing out that more than 80 percent of three strikers were sentenced prior to 2000. Changing the law, they said, would remove an important tool from the prosecutorial toolbox.

But so far, Prop. 36 does not appear to be endangering public safety, according to a recent report by Stanford Law School and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Citing state data, the report concluded that of the more than 1,000 inmates released from prison under the measure, fewer than 2 percent have been charged with new crimes. By comparison, the average recidivism rate over a similar time period for non-Prop. 36 inmates is 16 percent.

From left: Minard Roorda,  Richard Brown and Vivian Roorda
From left: Minard Roorda, Richard Brown and Vivian Roorda

Opponents’ prediction of the measure unleashing “blood in the streets” was hyperbole, said David Mills, a Stanford law professor who helped fund the initiative. “Millions of dollars have been saved and many lives changed, hopefully for the better,” he says.

Like their adopted son

“It’s a blessing,” says Richard Brown, a 61-year-old former drug addict.

At the time of his arrest in 1995, Brown says he was unaware that the Three Strikes law had been implemented the previous year. “I heard about it but I didn’t think they’d be that out of control with the sentencing guidelines,” he says.

After his release, Brown moved to Ripon, a small farming community south of Stockton, where he found a job with a company that assembles agricultural machinery. An aspiring gospel musician, he also sings in a local church.

Brown was drawn to Ripon by Minard and Vivian Roorda, local farmers who learned of his case from a neighbor 18 years ago. The Roordas supported Brown like an adopted son, visiting him regularly in prisons around the state.

Minard Roorda says he voted for the original Three Strikes law but realized it cast too wide a net and left men like Brown languishing in prison.

“Are they not deserved a second chance?” he said. “Are they not deserving our help? Are they not deserving our love?”

While prosecutors have challenged some Prop. 36 petitions, arguing that the inmates pose an unacceptable public safety risk, few of those efforts have been successful.

In Robert Watts’ case, Kern County prosecutors sought to block his release, citing evidence of marijuana use in prison and his prior convictions for robbery and assault. But the effort failed and the judge ordered Watts’ release.

Still, after a flurry of releases earlier this year, the pace has slowed to a trickle. In Los Angeles and some other counties, inmate petitions are getting stuck in the courts, creating a backlog of inmates who are still in prison even though they are eligible for resentencing.

“There’s been a steady decline in the number of petitions that have been reviewed,” said Bonnie Dumanis, district attorney for San Diego County.

The initial round of Prop. 36 reviews mainly involved low-risk inmates who were being fast-tracked for release. Now, courts are facing “hard, challenging cases where people have mental health issues or have some issues that need to be dealt with,” she said.

Recently, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye met with officials from several large counties to discuss ways to make the petition process “more efficient and effective,” Dumanis said.

An estimated 2,000 inmates eligible for resentencing under Prop. 36 remain in prison.

‘They give you $200 and kick you out’

Several former three strikers say their challenge has been coping with life on the streets without the structure of prison and support normally provided to newly released felons.

Most three strikers who qualify for release have served so much extra time they’re not placed on parole or probation. Often that means that don’t have access to substance abuse, mental health and other re-entry programs as well as housing.

“They give you $200 and kick you out, and they don’t give you any type of papers to indicate that you can go down to this program or (that) program,” said Brown. He considers himself lucky to have a job, home and support network.

“For many people coming out, it’s a nightmare,” he said.

In some counties, prosecutors, public defenders and legal aid groups are starting to develop support networks for three strikers coming out of prison.

Former inmates are also supporting each other. Twice each week Pete Marin of Bakersfield checks in on his friend Eddie Alwell. Marin and Alwell served 18 years behind bars, one for petty theft, the other for drug possession.

Alwell, 65, is frail and was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Much of his day is spent looking after six grandchildren. He met them for the first time after leaving prison.

Marin says he helps out Alwell around his house and drives him to the store and to church.

“A lot of men who were sentenced under three strikes…have realized that their life before was bad,” he said. “So a lot of them want to change. I think some kind of program to help them get on their feet and lead them in the right way…would be very important.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/LiberalsToRecallJerryBrown drBCayenneBird

    Not only are the prisoners released with only $200 in their pockets, they are forced to go back to the area where they were originally arrested. Jerry Brown and his gang of prison guards make the prisoners desperate because they want them back inside. Communities need to provide inmates with no families support to get them on their feet. This is basic common sense. There are still thousands of non-violent, frail elderly people who could be released. Our criminal justice system is a racket and generates funds with which to run the state bureaucracy.

    The voters have the power to change the laws and keep anyone taking money from law enforcement labor unions out of elected office. Brown is as bad as any Republican and he is fully aware that $200 at the gate is not enough to begin a new life.

    • DEANNA BAKERSFIELD

      Its a recipe for disaster, a lot of these guys have families that have forgotten about them or no family at all…..maybe they were in foster care their whole life, or they are elderly and their parents have passed on? Without a supporting family to help someone out they need to be placed in Sober Living Facilities.

  • Nina Courtney

    They get the whole 200 if they don’t have buy a bus ticket out of town to the county they were convicted in so they can get to their assigned parole officer. If no one is at the gate to pick up an inmate then they are driven to the bus station an a ticket is purchased for them with their money. So imagine getting released without any re entry program waiting for you to go to, no family because they gave up or moved on, no drivers licence, and so social security card, no birth certificate only your prison I.D. So you have maybe 150.00 dollars and were do you go? I always thought this would be a great documentary to hopefully open up the eyes of society. We need to be better than this.

    • DEANNA BAKERSFIELD

      a lot of guys are arrested in towns they did not live in….So they are bussed to a city they know no-one in and who wants to take in someone who just got out of prison for 12-20 years? Not many people……Its really sad, they resort to sleeping in the park and go back to crime because they have no means of getting a job, where will they shower, what clothes will they wear? They are released in the clothes they were arrested in…….They are set-up for failure unless that have a support system at home…A lot of these guys families forget about them after a long period of time sadly, they may not even know how to contact their family? Those bus tickets can be as much as $120 so they are left with $80 so that may pay one night hotel and food, then what? At a sober living facility there are other people there in the same boat and they have meetings and drug tests and the ability to work and a van that takes guys to work in the morning at some facilities…….

  • http://www.facebook.com/LiberalsToRecallJerryBrown drBCayenneBird

    Kern County DA Ed Jagels was one of the worst criminals in the history of California. Everyone that was sent to prison when he was building his career off the backs of innocent people needs to be re-tried.

  • Betty Garcia

    Its time to enforce the rehabilitation in the CDCR. Prisoners will be out sooner or later we can’t keep warehousing people because we are afraid of them.People deserve a second chance an opportunity to live a different life. Some of the money that Brown wants for new prisons should be used as Steinberg proposed to educate,rehabilitate and get the inmates ready for release. Re entry programs should be started how can someone be successful when the only option is the same one that sent them to prison in the first place? People will take the path of least resistance it’s in our nature. Everyone should have a second chance its as if we want them to fail purposely. There are so many people that can be released safely. In the words of the Governor “let’s stop pouring money down the rat hole”.

  • waltinseattle

    2 car alarms? seriously? In wa you don’t get half that for stealing two cars! But at least here they arrange transport to the county you were sentenced in.

    200 bucks, no contacts, no references and a big bad mark that essentially says no job no rental. Whats a guy to do? lie down and roll over, go back “home” where these are not the questions every morning when he wakes up in the alley or under the freeway. “wouldn’t you?” some call it just deserts. Some call it stupid policy.that stuff does seem to be going around as we pretend a tight belt will fix all our ills.

    And while he was digging his heels in, what was former Moonbeam doing to sort the releasables from the bloodhungry baby and granny rapers the press was fondly warning the citizens about if release happened? plenty have a chunk of blame to atone for.

    • DEANNA BAKERSFIELD

      I agree!

  • Moe Ramsey

    Yeah the terrible part of this is that, this is only the percentage of “3rd strikers” that managed to get out. Do yourselves a favor and call for an end to these 3 strike laws.

  • DEANNA BAKERSFIELD

    Ed Jagels was obviously wrong about recidivism, dead wrong and he has blood on his hands himself allowing child molesters to walk free….His word should be the last considered for any reputable article in my opinion…… These people being released need to be supported for at least two years in an in-house rehab program so there is some transition back to the real world and a support system in place….The rehab homes take the people to church and meetings almost everyday for therapy and such, some people take advantage of the programs but, if someone wants to change the in-house rehabs can help them make the transition…….There are many here in Bakersfield they are called sober living facilities.

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