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After Prop 36 victory, Three Strikes Project shifts focus

Even before California voters weighed in on Proposition 36 — a ballot measure that revises the state’s three strikes law — the Stanford Law School Three Strikes Project began working with clients who would be able to apply for re-sentencing hearings if the November measure passed.

Co-authored by Three Strikes Project Director Michael Romano and the NAACP legal defense fund, the proposition modified a section of the California three strikes law, which formerly required that an individual who had been convicted twice of any serious or violent felony would receive a life sentence if convicted of any third felony.

The Stanford Law School Three Strikes Project has represented individuals who were serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes under the law since 1996. Under Proposition 36, however, the three strikes law now imposes a life sentence only when the third felony conviction is a “serious or violent crime.” The measure also allows offenders to petition for a re-sentencing if their third strike conviction was not serious or violent.

According to Ashly Davis, a third-year law student involved with the Three Strikes Project, the work surrounding those petitions has been underway since before the November election.

“We were operating with cautious optimism from late September,” Davis said. “So that was a new experience to me as well, dealing with managing client expectations. You have this person, and you’re telling this guy that we really think the proposition is going to pass … [but] there was always that possibility it wouldn’t pass.”

The optimism ended up well placed. California voters passed Proposition 36 on Nov. 7 by a margin of 68.6 percent to 31.4 percent.

“We think this is a great start for justice reform, and we’re really pleased with the way it’s been moving forward,” said Susan Champion J.D. ’11, a fellow at the Three Strikes Project.

According to the Three Strikes Project website, “over 4,000 inmates in California are serving life sentences under the Three Strikes law for nonviolent crimes.” Champion said that if an individual committed two serious or violent felonies in the 1980s, within a short period of time, and then committed a nonviolent crime a decade later, he or she would receive a life sentence.

“They thought they would be locking up murderers and rapists and serious, scary criminals,” said Emily Galvin J.D. ’10, also a fellow at the Three Strikes Project. “What actually happened is … it disproportionately locked up a lot of older people, not necessarily elderly people, but people who, one, are not necessarily committing very serious crimes at the time of their life sentence and, two, were getting more advanced in age.”

In addition to representing 12 clients who are currently serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes, the Three Strikes Project is also helping to coordinate communication between public defenders’ offices across California districts.

“The new law has given about 3,000 people the right to bring these petitions to court,” Galvin said. “[District] public defenders’ offices have fabulously stepped forward and offered to take these cases.

“We’ve also been helping coordinate between these offices, getting them talking to each other, getting everyone on the same page about what’s going on in their county, how they’re going to be reaching out to potential eligible individuals,” she added.

With the passage of Proposition 36, the long-term future of the Three Strikes Project remains uncertain. Galvin indicated that public defense lawyers and their clients have yet to see how the courts will decide the petition cases.

“You’re catching us at a pivotal time,” Galvin said. “We still have these 12 clients we really need to help; we still have to file petitions. We’re not standing at the edge of the cliff, but we’ve just jumped off.”

Davis expressed a similar sentiment.

“As a law student interested in public interest work, probably the greatest moment you can ever have is working on a project to the point where that work isn’t needed anymore,” she said. “In a way that’s what we’ve done with the Three Strikes Project … What I would like to see is for the program to continue to evolve and meet the needs of people whose lives are affected by this law.”