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California Three Strikes Victory Brings Hope to Families

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Local activists reflect on the long bumpy road to reform

By Chris Levister

“This campaign was not about public safety, fairness or justice. This was about big names, big money, and big lies. This was about angry white men scaring the public.”

That was then 66-year-old California Three-Strikes reform activist Teresa Valdez in 2004 reacting to a jaw dropping media blitz featuring Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warning of mass releases of felons that led to a last minute about face by 2 million voters and a sound defeat of Prop 66 an initiative aimed at reforming California much maligned Three Strikes and You’re Out law. The ads hit the public days before the election.

Eight years later Valdez woke up on Nov. 7 to find California voters had given her a priceless gift: hope.

By an overwhelming margin, they'd passed Proposition 36 to revise the state's tough Three Strikes Law.

The new law prohibits judges from imposing a life sentence on most repeat offenders who commit minor crimes. But it also includes a provision that could result in an early release or shorter sentence for Valdez’s son who is serving 53 years to life for possession of a small quantity of marijuana.

“I will not be here to see my son released,” a teary eyed Valdez told reporters during a protest rally in 2009. For activists and three strike family members like FILO (Families of Incarcerated Loved Ones) founder and president, Barbara Ellis, the three-strikes law epitomized the mass-imprisonment fever that swept the nation in recent decades. Soaring prison costs and overcrowding have been particularly acute in California, which is currently under a federal court order to cut its prison population, and where three-strikes cases account for about a quarter of all inmates.

Ellis who has since moved to Louisiana was at the forefront of three strikes reform locally and at the state level.

“Oh my God, I'm just so elated and grateful,'” Ellis said. “It's not just my brother who has been incarcerated. I've been incarcerated, waiting for him.”

Ellis’ journey to reform Three Strikes began more than a decade ago when her brother was sentenced to 25 years to life for a third strike conviction on a charge that normally carries a 1-3 year sentence.

Her brother sits in a state prison clinging to life.

“His body is riddled with disease much of it due to benign neglect,” said Ellis. “We’ve seen fathers taken from their children for life for stealing pizza, mothers locked up for 25 to life for possession of marijuana. Many family members have died or are too sick to celebrate a new life for their family.”

Ellis and Valdez aren’t the only ones who envision a new life for their family. Clevon Booker is serving 17 years of a life sentence for stealing a credit card in San Bernardino County. His previous strikes also were burglaries.

Booker who has since gotten his GED and formed a prison cooking class was overjoyed by the news.

“It was like waking up and feeling a thousand pounds lighter,” said Booker. “It’s a blessing for me, my family and a long line of activists and supporters who persevered.”

Many elected officials have said privately that the law was unjust and disputed claims that it led to a reduction in California’s crime rate. Still most refused to publicly carry the reform banner.

One exception was Los Angeles County district attorney, Steve Cooley, a Republican, who criticized the law when he ran for office in 2000.

“DA Cooley did the right thing when others turned a blind eye to years of injustice,” said Ellis. “He knew this law was not only financially burdensome but grossly unfair,” she said.

California is one of 27 states with a three strikes law. Before Prop 36, it was the only state to impose life sentences for non-violent third strikes.

Cooley says the Prop 36 victory will help reduce some of the strain on California's penal system.

“It makes sure that our prisons are not overcrowded with people who don't deserve to be there and also helps people who have been sentenced to life for very minor, nonviolent conduct,” he said.

Since the three strikes law passed in 1994, crime has dropped in California, but it has also dropped in states without three strikes. As state spending on prisons has skyrocketed, politicians across the country are questioning whether the benefits of laws like three strikes outweigh the costs.

"We need a safe country, I want to live in a safe neighborhood, everybody does, but we ought to take a look at this corrections system and say is this really the way to do it," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said. "Is there another way to do it, which could save us money and still keep us safe? I think there might be."

As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Durbin is leading a broad review of us prison policies.

“I believe that voters want to make sure that those in government are spending their money well and not wasting it,” he said. “I also think that they don't want America to be known as a country that does inhumane things to its prisoners and, and incarcerates them unfairly, for any lengthy period of time that can't be justified.”

“All eyes are on California. California started this trend, as it starts so many trends, and people are really looking to see what people in the state are going to do with the three strikes law,” Adam Gelb, Director of Public Policy Safety Research at the Pew Center on the States, said.

Gelb says other states have also started to temper sentencing laws.

“Those states may be willing to revisit what they've done and maybe go a little further and the other half of the states that haven't approached this issue in a serious way yet probably are going to say, ‘Maybe now it's time,’ ”he said.

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