Pablo Garcia walked out of a San Diego prison last week and went to the beach for the first time in 24 years, free of a life sentence for breaking into a car. He stopped for a hamburger, french fries and a milkshake at a Wendy’s before arriving at his re-entry program in downtown Los Angeles.
Edwin Hutchison left San Quentin State Prison last month and boarded a nearly empty Amtrak train to Los Angeles. He had served 21 years before a judge agreed that he should not have to serve the remainder of his sentence, 30 years to life, for robbing a Taco Bell and a Domino’s Pizza in Long Beach, Calif., in 1999.
On the train, Mr. Hutchison ate an orange, his first piece of fresh fruit in decades.
Both men were sentenced under California’s Three Strikes law, a 1990s-era measure that made it mandatory for anyone convicted of three felonies to serve 25 years to life as long as two of the prior crimes were considered serious or violent.
Now they are among an estimated 6,000 people sentenced under Three Strikes who have been freed or had their sentences reduced since 2012, when Californians first voted to soften the law. In November, the state’s residents will be asked to vote on whether to go in the other direction and toughen some of the measures that have made many inmates eligible to be considered for an early parole.
Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, judges have continued to preside over cases like Mr. Garcia’s and Mr. Hutchison’s in hearings conducted by telephone. In some instances the judge has asked to see the prisoners seeking relief, bringing them into a courtroom empty but for the judge and court officers, while lawyers listen on the phone.
“Before they do something as dramatic as vacate a life sentence, they want to take a measure of a client in person,” said Michael Romano, director of Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project, a three-person office aided by law students that estimates it has helped free about 150 inmates sentenced under the law.
“But they also want to congratulate them and look them in the face and say you’ve earned your chance at freedom,” he said.
Californians’ first push to reform Three Strikes came in 2012, when they passed a measure requiring that all three offenses be violent or serious. A series of legal challenges and new policies in the years that followed made thousands more inmates eligible for release.
“There has been a systematic dumbing down of our crime laws,” said Michael Reynolds, whose 18-year-old daughter, Kimber, was fatally shot in 1992 as she fought two men trying to snatch her purse. After Mr. Reynolds learned both men had long records that included drug offenses and theft, he worked with a team of former judges to draft the Three Strikes law.
The subsequent changes to the law “certainly have been very damaging to its intent,” Mr. Reynolds said. “It is disappointing because everybody has a right to be able to walk our streets without being assaulted, robbed or raped.”
Supporters of the measures that softened Three Strikes said a vast majority of inmates remain incarcerated even though many of them qualify to have their cases heard by a judge or the parole board.
There are people still in prison whose third offense was as minor as stealing a bicycle or shoplifting, said Mr. Romano, who has been working on Three Strikes cases since 2007 and whose program spearheaded the changes and litigation that freed many sentenced under the law.
“We are not the Innocence Project,” Mr. Romano said. “Our clients have committed these crimes. They’re crimes of poverty and desperation and they were essentially thrown away.”
In July 2002, Brian Beinlich went into a Costco in Fountain Valley, Calif., grabbed two bottles of Hennessy and tucked them under his jacket.
He says he had not stolen since 1994, when he was arrested after committing a series of robberies over a 12-day period to pay for cocaine. He served four years for those crimes.
After he was released, he found a job, got married and kept away from drugs. But in 2001, he was laid off and his marriage began to fall apart. He fell into a deep depression and relapsed. Twice he tried to kill himself.
He entered the Costco intending to steal the liquor and sell it for drugs. Minutes later, he was tackled to the ground in the parking lot by security guards and charged with robbery for wielding a box cutter.
The next year, he received three consecutive life sentences under the Three Strikes law. At his sentencing, the Orange County judge said that he would not be eligible for parole for 81 years.
Mr. Beinlich turned around to see his mother weeping in the courtroom.
“I came really close to just wanting to end it,” Mr. Beinlich said. “I came really close to suicide, just because I was so overwhelmed by the amount of time I got.”
In prison, Mr. Beinlich became sober, completed dozens of rehabilitation programs, and showed such exemplary behavior that prison officials recommended a reduced sentence, according to court documents.
In December, at 59 years old, Mr. Beinlich was released. Since then, he said, he has taken courses to become a machinist, become active in his church and started attending 12-step group meetings.
A 2014 study found that the recidivism rate of inmates sentenced under Three Strikes and then released was 1.3 percent after 18 months, compared with 30 percent for all inmates over the same period.
Critics of some of the changes that softened Three Strikes often note the killing of Officer Keith Boyer, who was fatally shot in Whittier, Calif., by an ex-convict who repeatedly violated the terms of his probation but remained free.
In November, voters will be asked to vote on a proposal called the “Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act of 2020,” which aims to roll back some of the changes that reduced certain crimes from felonies to misdemeanors and allowed for offenders considered nonviolent to be eligible for early parole. The changes gave thousands of Three Strikers a chance at early release.
Supporters of the Safe Act say the proposal would designate crimes like rape of an unconscious person, child trafficking, and assault of a law enforcement officer as violent. They are now designated as nonviolent crimes, which has allowed felons convicted of them to be eligible for early release, said Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a Democrat and former county sheriff’s captain who supports the Safe Act.
“We’re not talking about theft or drug crimes,” he said. “We’re talking about rapes, sexually trafficking children, hate crimes.”
Felons convicted of these crimes “will still have a chance at parole, but they won’t be able to apply for early release,” Mr. Cooper said. “It doesn’t put one new person back in jail.”
Dan Newman, a political strategist who worked on the measures that would be rolled back, said the felonies Mr. Cooper cited already carry severe sentences.
The proposal on the ballot would eliminate “even the opportunity to start the rigorous parole application process for people convicted of minor drug possession or petty shoplifting,” he said.
Mr. Newman said supporters of the Safe Act were using high-profile crimes to scare people into chipping away at changes that have helped free inmates ready to start new lives.
“If 100 people turn their lives around and become productive taxpayers and good citizens, that’s not going to make TV news,” he said. “If one person commits a crime, then you’ve got the potential for a bunch of Willie Horton commercials.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom has not yet staked an official position on the proposal, but he has indicated he would not back it, given his past support for the measures the Safe Act seeks to roll back.
“You can imagine where I may end up,” he told reporters in January.
Mr. Beinlich said he began his rehabilitation long before the legal changes that gave him a chance of release were enacted.
“I decided that even if I had to spend the rest of my life in prison, I needed to change because I didn’t like who I’d become,” he said. “I’ve seen people brutally assaulted, murdered. I’ve seen horrible things in prison but I was not going to be a part of it.”
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