In 1997, William Anderson stole a dollar in loose change from a parked car. He was arrested and sentenced under California’s voter-approved “three strikes and you’re out” law. Mr Anderson’s two previous convictions of daylight residential burglary in 1985 now accounted for his first two strikes, allowing his petty theft from the car to trigger the hammer blow—the third strike. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in state prison.
A number of states in the US have the three strikes law, under which criminals who persisently offend are given increasing penalties. Yet in California there remains one glaring difference that many believe is a catalyst for continued injustice. While the first two strikes must be “serious or violent” crimes, the third strike does not. This discrepancy has allowed criminal prosecutors to press for a variety of life-crippling sentences for the most minor of offences.
In California, the original three strikes law (Proposition 184) was passed in 1994, but it was almost overturned in 2004 when the Proposition 66 ballot proposed to amend the law by requiring the third strike to be a violent or serious crime in order to warrant a life sentence. The ballot’s failure to pass could in some way be attributed to the blitz of TV commercials led by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in the run up to the ballot, in which he suggested reform would risk turning America’s most fiendish felons back onto the streets.
As it stands, figures released by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation show that, as of 2005, 56 percent of all three-striker inmates were convicted on non-serious or non-violent offences.
Earlier this year, I travelled to California to meet a lawyer called Michael Romano, who, alongside fellow attorney Galit Lipa, has established the Criminal Defense Clinic at Stanford University to fight on behalf of the three-strikers. Romano told me: “There wasn’t anybody, no interest groups or lawyers, dedicated to helping these three-strikers, although arguably the injustices in those cases were as bad as anywhere in the [justice] system.”
After more than a year of casework and tracking people down, they had a breakthrough. Romano persuaded the Superior Court of California to consider a habeas corpus appeal for Alex Maese, a Vietnam War vet with post-traumatic stress disorder who was sentenced to life for possession of a cotton wool ball containing 0.029 grams of heroin in 1997. To everyone’s shock, the judge overturned the conviction and ordered Maese to be released with immediate effect in 2008. The lawyers had obtained expert testimony that Maese self-medicated his disorder with heroin.
The impact of the Stanford team has spread through the prison system and the clinic now has thousands of requests for representation. They accept only non-violent cases where minor crimes have been committed in each of the three strikes. The focus is on the third strike discrepancy and the problems it creates. It’s not even about innocence: all their clients are guilty of committing crime, but those misdemeanours should not have cost them their lives.
Recently, more and more former supporters of the legislation have had a change of heart, says Romano. “We have judges calling us and saying, ‘I sentenced some guy to life ten years ago—I think about the poor bastard all the time. Can you do anything about it?’,” he says.
The issue that remains is that most Californians are not aware of the problems the three strike law has caused. Without even considering the prison costs—the incarceration of three-strikers has cost an estimated additional $19.2 billion—the reality is that those caught up in the law are the homeless, the drug-addicted and the mentally ill. These are not people whose convictions get them on the front of a newspaper. I spoke to four former convicts who fell foul of California’s three strike law, each of whom was released from prison following appeals by Romano’s Criminal Defense Clinic.
James Clark in Palo Alto as he waits to begin his daily shift with the Downtown Streets Team.
He sweeps the streets as part of his morning shift.
James beds down for the evening at Palo Alto Church of Christ, one of a group of churches that provides shelter for the homeless.
James Clark (was William Anderson)
Breaking into a car for a dollar in change
Previous two strikes:
Two non-violent daylight residential burglaries in 1985
25 years to life in 1997
I first encounter James when Michael Romano arranges for me to tag along to one of their regular lunch meets. As the most recently released prisoner, and one with no family support, the Stanford team had arranged for James to relocate to Palo Alto to maintain contact and a framework of support. Unlike other three-strikers I would meet, James had no partner and was homeless. The Criminal Defense Clinic arranged a place for him at a local mission.
James has been failed by a system devised to help those who cannot help themselves. He should still be in jail but is now free and fighting one day at a time for acceptance in a faster and less forgiving place than he knew before. He doesn’t have big plans, but has a steady goal that’s focused on survival. It’s arguably the most practical way of thinking. He says: “Sometimes some things can be fixed, but instead [the penal system] just decided: ‘We’ll just do this to people— they’re broken, so who cares? Let’s just toss them into the garbage pile.’ I’d been going into my fourteenth year inside if I hadn’t got out with Mike [Romano]. I’m still working on it, I still have problems. I’m taking medication to try to get things straight.”
Charles Ramirez sits on his weights bench after working out in his family home in Whittier, LA.
Charles fishing with his son Nick at Redondo pier.
Charles in his parents’ yard. His father sleeps in the afternoon sun. After being released from prison, Charles returned home and rebuilt his life with his family’s support.
Breaking into a van and stealing the radio
Previous two strikes:
Two non-violent residential burglaries in 1991
25 years to life in 1996
Charles’s problems started when he was physically and psychologically harmed by his parents. I spoke to Charles about the difficulty of moving back home with these dark memories, and he could only talk about “moving on”. “The past is ugly but I learned to forgive and leave it alone,” he says.
Despite the past, his parents seemed happy to have him back in the house. His mother, Mary Lou, was clearly disturbed at what the prison sentence had done to her son. “They took my son as a man and when they threw him out of jail he came out as a shell. He didn’t know anything about cell phones or the TV. They took his spirit from him, his identity. They broke him.”
On his days off he goes to church, to the movies with his girlfriend, and fishing with his son, Nick. They go to Redondo pier in west LA, a long strip leading out into the Pacific. Charles was incarcerated when Nick was six, leaving him to grow up without a father figure which has created an uncertainty in their relationship. Neither of them are expecting miracles, but they are both giving each other a chance. “I still got a long road to go,” says Charles. “At least now he calls me Dad. I don’t like when he calls me Charles. But I got my son back and I’m working at it every chance I get. Dad ain’t going nowhere. I’m here to stay.”
Vincent Rico at home in Upland, LA, displaying some of the tattoos he got while growing up in Azusa and in prison.
Vincent and his wife Monika outside their apartment.
Vincent and Monika returning from their local Swap Meet, which is a bit like a car boot sale.
Stealing a pair of children’s tennis shoes
Previous two strikes:
Two non-violent residential burglaries in 1986 and 1987
25 years to life in 1996
After his release, Vincent stayed with his wife at his sister’s place until he found a job to earn money for rent. They moved into their own place in February this year, which by coincidence was the first wedding anniversary they have ever spent together, having married in 1995, mere months before his arrest. Since then, they attend weekly Swap Meets—like a car boot sale—to buy furniture and other household appliances. I share the first meal on their kitchen table, which had been bought the previous day. They had been eating on the floor since they moved in.
He says he had a normal childhood, but a history of gang violence, alcoholism and abuse didn’t provide the best start in life. Despite this, Vincent had aspirations. “My dad was a truck driver, so I wanted to drive a truck. But my whole mind went off that focus and I started ending up in juvenile hall.” After spells of petty theft and heroin addiction, Vincent found himself looking at a lifetime behind bars.
Vincent’s son is stationed with the US army in Germany. He hopes to see him soon. He takes nothing for granted now and relishes waking in the morning to a life of freedom. “Our future looks bright,” he says. “Everything is falling into place now. We have our home, our job and our health. Our kids are grown and we can focus on each other.”
Miguel embraces his fiancée Jacqueline.
Miguel Algarin at his home in Bell Gardens, LA.
Miguel reflects on his newfound freedom.
Found inside a dollar-store warehouse after business hours and arrested for attempted burglary
Previous two strikes:
Two non-violent daytime residential burglaries in 1991
25 years to life in 1998
Miguel welcomes me into his Bell Gardens home with a smile. He lives with his fiancée Jacqueline and her daughter. The couple are openly affectionate. “We met through his mother,” says Jacqueline. “We were supposed to just go out a few times, but we fell in love. Seven months later, here we are—he asked me to marry him.” She shows me her engagement ring.
Miguel clearly needs this companionship in order to survive in the outside world. Prison was a tough ride for him, and like many others he attempted to take his own life. He has mental conditions that went untreated—an IQ of 62, major depression, schizophrenia, and ADD—and yet he has worked through it, holding down a carpentry job until his contract recently expired. “I probably would have given up inside,” he says. “My board hearing was supposed to be 2020. If they would have denied me I would have found some heroin in the yard, then I just would have went out. I thought about that every single time. I said to myself, ‘I don’t wanna die suffering in prison.’”
Miguel finds life difficult on the outside, but is grateful for the help he’s received. “I almost lost my life. If it wasn’t for Galit [Lipa] and Stanford University, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you, and I thank the Lord that they were there when I needed them.”