Righting the wrongs of "Three Strikes" life sentences

Ashly Nikkole Davis
Ashly Nikkole Davis
CBS News

In California, for nearly 20 years now, a person convicted of breaking three laws -- no matter how minor -- would be sent to prison for life, no exceptions.

Some young people who saw injustice in the "Three-Strikes" law set out to change it.

At Stanford Law School, Michael Romano and his students don't just study justice, they go in search of it; seeking to free those, who, because of California's "Three Strikes" law, are serving life sentences for minor crimes.

Ashly Nikkole Davis is helping one inmate whose third strike was shoplifting a pair of gloves and a spool of wire from Home Depot, and another client who was arrested attempting to steal a car radio.

California passed its harsh "Three Strikes" law in 1994 after the high profile kidnapping and killing of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a repeat offender. It was meant to keep serial murderers, rapists, and child molesters off the streets, but Stanford students saw a disturbing pattern.

"There's not just a handful of people who are sentenced to life. These aren't the exception. This is the rule. There are thousands of people who have been sentenced to life for non-violent crimes," said Michael Romano, director of the Stanford Three Strikes Project.

They discovered more than 4,000 such cases, according to former student Emily Galvin.

"At every level, there had been a prosecutor or a judge who thought it was okay to hand down a life sentence for shoplifting. (It) was really horrifying to me," Galvin said.

Armed with what they had learned about "Three Strikes," the Stanford students began a campaign for change. They gathered signatures, and wrote a ballot measure. In the November election, proposition 36, a major reform of the law, was passed by 70 percent of California voters.

"The people have spoken and the people no longer want to hand down these ridiculously harsh sentences for minor crimes," Galvin said.

With the change, "Three Strikes" inmates can now appeal to have their cases reviewed. The students are being repaid in gratitude by the prisoners they're helping.

One prisoner wrote: "I am very happy that proposition 36 has passed. To now being on the verge of having my life back is overwhelming. Thank you for your efforts in my favor, also, in treating me like a human being."

The Stanford students have now brought hope to inmates who believe they've already done enough time for a minor crime.

  • John Blackstone
    John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.