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.
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.”