3 strikes reform brings hope to some inmates


With the help of California Watch, part of the Center for Investigative Reporting, we hear from three inmates awaiting their freedom.

Tuesday night was a chance to celebrate for supporters of Prop 36, the initiative to scale back California's three strikes law.

"Usually when people go to the polls, they are voting to increase penalties; this is one of the few times actually in U.S. history where they've said, 'No, it's too harsh,'" Prop 36 author Michael Romano said.

No one was paying more attention to the vote than one group of prisoners at San Quentin Prison. Called Hope for Strikers, the group has been meeting for many years to bring awareness to the three strikes law.

"My name is Eddie Griffin and I got 27 years to life for possession of cocaine," inmate Eddie Griffin said.

"My third strike is burglary of an unoccupied dwelling; it was my first relapse after being clean and sober for almost 10 years," inmate Joey Mason said.

"My third strike was instigating a fight; it was a non-violent, non-serious felony, and they gave me 25 to life," inmate Sajad Sakoor said.

Sakoor has already served 16 years behind bars. He is one of the 9,000 third strikers in California's prisons, and one of the 3,000 who will be eligible for a rehearing because of Prop 36.

"This is my second time in prison and my first two strikes came from one case when I was 18 years old, two burglaries," Sakoor said.

Now, a judge could decide to remove Sakoor's life sentence.

"If the life sentence gets taken off, then chances are that I may end up going home because I have so much time already in," Sakoor said.

Sutter County District Attorney Carl Adams opposed Prop 36.

"California voted for three strikes because they were tired of this idea of people going to prison, getting out, committing another felony, victimizing somebody else, going back, getting out, creating another victim, and so on and so on," he said.

Romano says California's three strikes law will still remain the toughest in the country.

"It is really trying to address what we think are the most excessive sentences in the country, close to in the country's history," he 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.

Romano says this week's vote will help reduce some of the strain in 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."

This week's vote signals a new direction for California, which was at the forefront of introducing laws like three strikes.

"All eyes are on California here; 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.

Meanwhile, for thousands of California inmates like Sakoor, Prop 36 may now offer a chance at a fresh start.

"I'm glad that the people of California are having a second chance to take a second look at this; I'm hopeful, I'm very hopeful," Sakoor said.

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