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A Life Sentence for Stealing Socks? California’s Prop 36 to Decide Future of Three-Strikes Law

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Under California’s three-strikes law, a person convicted of a felony who has two or more prior convictions for certain offenses must be sentenced to at least 25 years to life in state prison, even if the third offense is nonviolent. Critics have argued it is the harshest sentencing law in the United States. Life sentences have been handed down for stealing a pair of pants, shoplifting, forging a check and breaking into a soup kitchen. Although other states have three-strikes laws, California is the only state where a life sentence can be handed down for a nonviolent crime that could qualify as a misdemeanor, such as petty theft or drug possession. We speak to Michael Romano, director of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School and a co-author of Proposition 36, and to Judge LaDoris Cordell, a retired Superior Court judge. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryNov 05, 2004Ballot Initiative to Ease California “Three Strikes Law” Fails to Pass
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue our 100-city Silenced Majority tour around the country, we have stopped at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, where we’re broadcasting from today.

And we continue our conversation on the criminal justice reforms appearing on the November 6th California ballot. Prop 36 would revise the law limiting third-strike felonies to serious or violent crimes only. Under three strikes, a person convicted of a felony in California who has two or more prior convictions for certain offenses must be sentenced to at least 25 years to life in state prison, even if the third offense is nonviolent. Critics have argued it’s the harshest sentencing law in the United States. Though other states have three-strikes laws, California is the only state where a life sentence can be handed down for a nonviolent crime that could qualify as a misdemeanor, such as petty theft or drug possession.

Opponents of the law often cite the case of Norman Williams. In 1997, he was sentenced to 25 years to life under the three-strikes law for stealing a car jack from the back of an open tow truck. He had two previous nonviolent crimes on his record. Williams was released in 2009 with the help of the Three Strikes Project here at Stanford Law School.

To talk more about Proposition 36, we’re joined now by two guests. Michael Romano is director of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School and a co-author of Prop 36. And Judge LaDoris Cordell, a retired Superior Court judge who spent 19 years on the bench in Santa Clara County in California, she is former vice provost here at Stanford University and presently serves as the independent police auditor for the [city] of San Jose.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Before we talk about this proposition, I wanted to go back to Prop 34, because, Judge LaDoris Cordell, you are cited in the literature that’s sent out to people here in California, supporting this moratorium on the death penalty. Why?

LADORIS CORDELL: Right. I support it for a number of reasons. But basically, very quickly, one is that the death penalty system in California is broken beyond repair. Attempts have been tried to repair it, and it cannot be done. It is poor public policy because it means taxpayer dollars are being wasted on a system that is broken.

And the concern is that there—the death penalty is finality for those who are executed, and if there are people who are innocent—and we don’t know if there are people who are innocent on death row—it’s not worth going down that route. A study was just done, in fact released just this week, showing that there is a higher percentage of people who have been found to be innocent of crimes, who have been sentenced to life in prison, who have been wrongfully convicted in California than in any other state. We can’t take a risk.

So, when you take a broken system, wasted tax dollars, the fact that you don’t want to ever execute innocent people, and we know that innocent people have been on death row across this country—at least 140 people have been found to have been innocent who were sentenced to death—that’s why.

AMY GOODMAN: People might be surprised to hear that you’re a judge. Did you ever sentence anyone to die?

LADORIS CORDELL: I was never assigned a death penalty case. However, I have sentenced people to life in prison. So I get it. I understand how the system works. I worked at the helm of the criminal justice system. And it is time—it is time to just put the brakes on the death penalty system and replace it with life without the possibility of parole.

And by the way, Proposition 34, when it passes, it will serve to keep people safer in California. It will serve to keep people safer, because the money that’s been thrown down the drain on this system will be used to enhance the investigations of homicides and rapes, and it will serve to make every one member of the public safer.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go from Proposition 34 to Proposition 36. Mike Romano, you head the Three Strikes Project here at Stanford Law School. You helped draft this proposition. Explain who you worked with and how the three-strikes law works today. Give us some examples of people who have been imprisoned for life.

MICHAEL ROMANO: Sure. So, the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School began as an organization to represent individuals who have been sentenced to life under California’s three-strikes law—as you mentioned, the harshest sentencing law in the country—for extraordinarily minor crimes. So, for example, we represent somebody who’s currently serving a life sentence for shoplifting a $2 pair of socks, another client who stole a dollar in change from a parked car.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, what did—the person who shoplifted a pair of socks, how many years in prison did they get?

MICHAEL ROMANO: He’s—life sentence. He’s already served 12 years for the crime, and he’s still serving a life sentence. He’s in prison today.

AMY GOODMAN: Because it was his third strike.

MICHAEL ROMANO: Because it was his third strike. He had never hurt anybody before in his life. I’m not saying that these people are innocent or that they aren’t repeat offenders—they are. But the idea that somebody should get a life sentence for utterly nonviolent crimes, I think it’s, first of all, not what the voters intended when they passed the three-strikes law in '94. It's not effective as a matter criminal justice policy. It doesn’t make us safer.

And it’s just not fair. In California, rapists—the maximum sentence for rape in California is eight years. And most murderers get 15 to life. So we’re talking about life sentence for somebody who shoplifted a pair of socks or a simple drug possession or shoplifting. And it just—that does absolutely nothing to keep California safe.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about who is forming the coalition now for Prop 36.

MICHAEL ROMANO: So, Prop 36 is actually supported by, I think, one of the more unusual criminal justice coalitions in the country. We were approached by the district attorney from Los Angeles County, Steve Cooley, who is a Republican and tough on crime and one of the leading proponents of the death penalty, actually, in California, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is one of the most progressive civil rights organizations in the country. And between some professors at Stanford, Steve Cooley’s office in Los Angeles—the DA in Los Angeles—and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, we’ve crafted Prop 36, which, you know, as I said, I think keeps the core of the three-strikes law, life sentences for violent crimes—we’re not doing anything to change that. You get a life sentence if you commit three serious or violent crimes. But it does eliminate life sentences for these non-serious, nonviolent crimes.

AMY GOODMAN: Grover Norquist supports this?

MICHAEL ROMANO: Grover Norquist supports it. So does George Shultz and other, you know, leading Republicans both throughout California and the country, because I think that they realize, first of all, it’s a waste of money. Proposition 36 will save California over $100 million every year. But even more, I think, important is it’s just not effective government policy. It’s not effective criminal justice reform policy, and it’s not effective public safety.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to those who argue in favor of the three-strikes law. This is California State Senator Tom Harman speaking to New York Times Magazine.

SEN. TOM HARMAN: These are the types of people that we have to take off the streets and just say, “I’m sorry, you were warned once. You were warned twice. You knew what the law was, and you violated it.” And I don’t have any particular problem with putting people like that behind bars for a lengthy period of time.

AMY GOODMAN: Judge LaDoris Cordell, your response to those who are for the current strike—three-strikes [law]?

LADORIS CORDELL: I don’t think I could put it any better than what Mr. Romano has said. I am someone who presided over three-strikes cases when I was on the bench in Santa Clara County, and I have sentenced people to life without the possibility of parole under the three-strikes law. And I will tell you that one of the reasons that I left the bench was partly my frustration with this three-strikes law. And I just vowed that if I couldn’t help—and I did speak out about this when I was on the bench, but if I couldn’t change the law while I was there, I vowed to try to do something once I’ve been off the bench. This is a—it’s similar to Prop 34 in that it is just not a good use of taxpayer dollars. It’s not good public policy, and it does nothing to help keep us more safe.

AMY GOODMAN: What is it like to be a judge when you don’t have discretion?

LADORIS CORDELL: It’s hard. The most difficult job that a judge has is sentencing. It’s really deciding what to do with this person and taking into consideration the victims, concern for public safety, and concern about the individual who has committed these crimes. When a law gets passed that says you have to do this, you just have to sentence this person away for life, it’s really not what judges are doing. We might as well then set up a computer and just put in some numbers and make it happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to a clip from Sam Banning’s documentary called Cruel and Unusual. This is Kelly Turner. She spent 13 years in prison under the three-strikes law. Her third strike was forging a check.

KELLY TURNER: I’m not the only one that did 13 years. My sisters did 13 years. My nieces and my nephews did 13 years. You know, I always wanted to have kids. You know, I wanted four kids. Well, part of that collateral damage, I won’t have kids now.

AMY GOODMAN: Judge LaDoris Cordell, talk about Kelly Turner.

LADORIS CORDELL: This is the case that I ended up getting involved in. I heard about Kelly’s case and decided that I ought to do something. And this is after I had left the bench. I had retired. So, it was a two-and-a-half-year odyssey. And one of the first people to whom I spoke in trying to figure out how I could get this woman out, who had been serving, at that time, about—she had been in at least a decade for writing a bad check, I turned to Mr. Romano and talked to him and—to get some advice about how to go about getting Kelly out. And after two-and-a-half years—I worked with a lawyer whose name was Roy Bartlett, from San Francisco, who pro bono worked with me, and Kelly was freed September 8th, 2009, as a result of a habeas petition that we filed. And she has been free since. She has since gotten married. She’s stayed out of trouble. And she’s no menace to society, after serving 13 years—


LADORIS CORDELL: —for writing a bad check.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Steve Cooley for a minute, the person that you mentioned, Mike Romano. Steve Cooley served as district attorney of Los Angeles County since 2000, one of the few Republicans who has campaigned for the reform of three strikes. This is a clip from Sam Banning’s film Arguing Three Strikes.

STEVE COOLEY: I think there were some cases where the 25-to-life sentence should not have been imposed, particularly on some nonviolent, non-serious felonies. Just by any measure, 25 to life was an exceedingly long sentence for the nature of the conduct being punished. And I think that was recognized by the public at large, maybe not by some of the politicians. But the public at large, they got it. Proportionality, when it comes to—and using discretion in applying the three-strikes law, the public, I think, respects and appreciates and wants to happen in their criminal justice system.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Cooley. Mike Romano?

MICHAEL ROMANO: So, Proposition 36 is one of those rare laws that’s actually been sort of tried in a laboratory. Steve Cooley, who is the district attorney for the largest prosecution office in the country, has voluntarily implemented Proposition 36 over the past 10 years. And crime in Los Angeles County is down more than it is throughout the state. So, the idea that this is some sort of soft-on-crime measure, I think, is belied by, you know, the experience in Los Angeles.

And I do want to say that Judge Cordell is being too modest here. Really, when she stepped down from the bench, she took it on herself to really be the clarion call about what’s going on with three-strikers. And, you know, they are not high-profile crimes. They’re petty thieves and pickpockets and drug users.

AMY GOODMAN: Dale Gaines—can you tell us his story?

MICHAEL ROMANO: Sure. So, Dale Gaines is one of my clients, and he was sentenced to life for possession of stolen property. He’s mentally retarded and severely mentally ill. He was homeless and drug-addicted for decades, prior to being sentenced to life in prison. And he has never hurt anybody in his life. He was found mentally incompetent to stand trial, but still his public defender waived that issue, went to trial, put on absolutely no evidence in his defense. And that’s what I was sort of alluding to, in that these are—they’re small cases. They’re not being handled by experienced attorneys. It’s the most overworked public defenders and prosecutors. And then they’re sentenced to life.

AMY GOODMAN: Shane Taylor?

MICHAEL ROMANO: Shane Taylor is a—the judge in Shane Taylor’s case who sentenced him to life called me and said, “I made a horrible mistake. Can you do something to represent this guy who I sentenced to life for 0.1 grams of methamphetamine?” It’s a speck—

AMY GOODMAN: Possession?

MICHAEL ROMANO: For simple possession. It’s a speck. It’s like a tiny fingernail. He’s never hurt anybody before in his life, either. The prosecutor in his case, the judge in his case all think he’s serving too much time, yet courts have refused—refused to do anything about his situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Judge Cordell, we were last here at Stanford University’s TV studio talking about a previous incarnation of a reforming three-strikes bill. What makes this different?

LADORIS CORDELL: Right. I was last here in 2004, and that was Prop 66, which was yet another initiative attempt to—it was the first attempt to reform the three-strikes law. I will tell you, Proposition 36, it’s better thought-out. It has—as Mr. Romano has stated, it’s really been tested out actually in L.A. County, and there is growing public support for Proposition 36. People get it, that they’re not catering to the opposition that’s raising fear, raising anger. And that’s not the way to drive good public policy. And for this reason, this—this initiative that was co-authored by Mr. Romano is a more thoughtful piece, and it really gets at the issue, and it’s going to do the right thing by those who—I think, who have been unjustly sentenced to life in prison, and still keep the public safe.

AMY GOODMAN: What would you say the chances are for Prop 36 to be passed and also Prop 34, the proposition to overturn the death penalty, and the different coalitions around both?

LADORIS CORDELL: Yeah, and polling is going to be coming out shortly on both of those propositions. But the last polling shows that Proposition 36—and that is to reform the three-strikes law—is leading in the polls, and that’s because people really understand and appreciate what this initiative is about. Proposition 34, to take death penalty sentences and to make them into life without the possibility of parole, it’s much closer. And it’s much closer because people are much more familiar with the death penalty. People—if you talk about the death penalty, “Oh, yeah, I know it.” If you mention three-strikes law, people are not so sure about it or knowledgeable about it. And there’s more emotion attached to the death penalty.

But I think when the public, more and more, they hear that when this passes, $100 million will be placed in a fund that will be run by the state’s highest prosecutor, the attorney general, to fund homicide investigations and to fund laboratories so they can speed up the analysis of DNA, people will understand that they are going to be a lot safer having this proposition passed.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Michael Romano, thank you, director of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School, co-author of Prop 36. And Judge LaDoris Cordell, a retired Superior Court judge, spent 19 years on the bench in Santa Clara County. She’s former vice provost here at Stanford University, presently serves as the independent police auditor for the city of San Jose. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go south to the border. Stay with us.

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