Three Strikes Project fights life sentences for nonviolent recidivists

Feb. 15, 2011, 2:05 a.m.

Students at Stanford Law School are fighting to change what is known as the Three Strikes Law in the California criminal justice system.

The Stanford Three Strikes Project, founded in 2006, takes on clients who are facing life sentences under the Three Strikes Law, which mandates a 25-year to life sentence for third-time offenders. The third offense need not be “serious” or “violent” for the law to be applied.

The Three Strikes Project has reduced sentences in 15 cases over the past two and a half years.

Shane Taylor, a current client, “struck out” for possessing 0.09 grams of methamphetamine valued at $10, said Stanford Law School student Susannah Karlsson ’11, who is handling his case. His previous offenses were attempted burglary and burglary, both nonviolent offenses.

Of Taylor’s first two strikes, one was the result of attempting to purchase a pizza with a stolen check. His third offense put Taylor under the effect of the three strikes law.

“A pizza and $10 worth of drugs resulted in a life sentence,” said Karlsson, emphasizing the excessive nature of the punishment.

“It’s amazing,” said lecturer Michael Romano, a Three Strikes Project co-founder. “You start with one case and say, ‘I can’t believe that someone is serving a life sentence for such minor crimes.’ Then you realize there are more.”

The Three Strikes Project students recently held what Karlsson called a “letter-writing party” in which the group responded to about 2,000 letters written by inmates requesting for help. That was only two-thirds of the mail they currently hold.

“We try to do out best job to triage those cases that we think are the most disproportionate sentences,” Romano said.

At the time of its creation, the Three Strikes Law was designed to punish career criminals, such as sexual predators.

“When it was sold, it was about violence and predators,” Karlsson said. “And that’s not how it’s being used.”

Karlsson likened the law in its current manifestation to a “blunt sword” used to “swipe at the most vulnerable people in the criminal justice system.”

Although the Project is focused on dealing with the law on a case-by-case basis, Romano and his students were recently hired by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to work on reforming the law.

The Three Strikes Project is one of 10 clinics at the Law School. Students apply to the clinics and work under the supervision of licensed attorneys.

“The clinics are modeled after medical school internships,” said Romano. Apprentices shadow experts and test their knowledge on real clients.

Students beginning work with the Three Strikes Project receive a quarter’s worth of units for full-time work without pay. After the first quarter, they return to taking regular classes with the option to continue their work for units.

Romano noted that the Project had both a pedagogic mission and a social mission.

“There is no other clinic or organization in the country that represents this law,” he said.

The students are concerned with reducing their clients’ sentences to terms more proportionate to their crimes.

“We’re asking the court to reexamine the sentence, pointing to all the mistakes made along the way,” Karlsson said.

Tyrone Miles, another client of Karlsson’s, is serving a life sentence for forging a $120 check after two nonviolent priors.

The process of appealing the clients’ sentences is long and bureaucratic. In Taylor’s case, Karlsson filed a habeas petition, which was denied. This denial was appealed to the California Court of Appeals in November. The attorney general recently responded, and Karlsson is currently drafting a reply.

Miles’ case was denied in different stages of the state court and is currently in the Ninth District Federal Court of Appeals.

“Habeas petitions are least likely to succeed,” Karlsson said. “There is a really high threshold to win…you have to show something is really bad and really wrong to be able to get appeal.”

“In a huge majority of cases, prisoners file [habeas petitions] for themselves and lose almost every time,” Karlsson said.

But Karlsson is optimistic about the outcome of Taylor’s case.

“We hope that the court orders argument, because that’s an argument we will win,” she said. “All we need to do is let Shane be heard.”

Marwa Farag is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily. Previously, she was the managing editor of news, managing editor of the former features section, a features desk editor and a news writer.

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