This November, a voter’s initiative on the California ballot, Proposition 36, seeks to reform the state’s three strikes law. The law allows life sentences for repeat offenders, regardless of the severity of their crimes. Advocates of the initiative say sentencing reform will save taxpayers millions, while opponents argue that the law keeps communities safe.
See more coverage on Al Jazeera’s People and Power and KQED’s California Report.
Reporter Michael Montgomery: Tough on crime. Keep criminals off the street. Lock them up and throw away the key.
U.S. politicians have capitalized on anti-crime slogans like these for decades.
Today, America locks up more people than any other country in the world. Some inmates are held in isolation units that human rights groups call cruel and inhumane. And in a time of severe fiscal pressure, the U.S. spends $80 billion a year to keep 2 million prisoners behind bars.
Amid these human and financial costs, new attitudes toward crime and punishment are showing up across the country this election season.
Voiceover (in campaign ad): A message from California district attorneys.
Reporter: One of the clearest signs that Americans are rethinking tough-on-crime policies is Proposition 36, a voters’ initiative in California this November that would reform the state’s hotly debated three strikes law. The law allows life sentences for repeat offenders, regardless of the severity of their crimes.
Michael Romano: I was working for a judge, and I began to learn how many people – hundreds, thousands of people – who have been sentenced to life for extraordinarily minor crimes.
Reporter: Michael Romano, a lecturer at Stanford University Law School, helped write the reform initiative.
Romano: The United States has a mass incarceration problem. There are more black people in prison in the United States today than were enslaved at the height of slavery.
Reporter: Since 2006, Romano has worked with a team of law students at Stanford to help people locked up under the three strikes law, gathering additional evidence and filing petitions for resentencing hearings.
Romano: I think some attitudes about three strikes have changed over time. And some prosecutors actually ended up joining our petitions and agreeing to the release of some of our clients. And that was really what helped get some momentum started and get some success in some of our cases.
Reporter: One of those cases was Norman Williams, a man whose first two convictions were for burglarizing an empty home and stealing an armload of tools from an art studio. His third strike: petty theft.
Norman Williams: When I was out there, I was homeless. I didn’t have no structure, and I was doing drugs and things like that.
Romano: He was convicted of stealing a car jack from the back of a pickup truck and sentenced to life for that crime. I think he would be the first to tell you that he actually committed those crimes, but that a life sentence for petty theft is really pretty excessive. And he ended up doing 13 years for that, which is longer than people do for rape. And he was even sentenced longer than people get for, for murders.
Reporter: Romano and his students were able to persuade a judge to cut Williams’ sentence, and he’s been free since 2009. Since his release, Williams does janitorial work as part of a program for ex-offenders.
Williams: To get up every morning and come down here and do this stuff right here is, is good. And that’s – this is what I like about it. It really helps me. I help, I help others, and I also help myself.
Reporter: Proposition 36 would help other nonviolent felons serving life sentences get out of prison faster. The ballot measure would also block prosecutors from charging suspects with a third strike if the crime is minor and they have no history of violence.
Romano: It is really trying to address what we think are the most excessive sentences in the country – close to in the country’s history – outside of the death penalty. These are life sentences for, for minor crimes. These people haven’t hurt anybody before in their lives. So Prop. 36 is an attempt to really address that screaming problem.
Adam Gelb: California’s three strikes law really stands out. It is the sore thumb of this issue across the country, and if it’s changed, it will definitely send a dramatic signal to policymakers across the country that it is a new day.
Reporter: Adam Gelb directs public safety research at the Pew Center, a nonprofit think tank.
Gelb: About half the states in the past five years have, have done some fairly significant changes to their sentencing corrections laws and policies that affect who goes in and how long they stay. But if California does this, 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 broached this issue in a serious way yet probably are going to say, “Maybe now it’s time.”
Reporter: Twenty-seven states have three strikes laws, mandating long prison terms for repeat offenders. It all started about 20 years ago.
Voiceover (in campaign ad): Released from prison on parole, then arrested again.
Reporter: The laws are based on the belief that some criminals don’t deserve unlimited second chances. America was reeling from a wave of violent crime that began in the late 1960s and intensified with the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s.
Frank Zimring: What happened by the early 1990s was what I would describe politically as the angriest era of crime policy really in California and American history.
Reporter: Professor Frank Zimring, a distinguished scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, has studied crime and punishment in the United States for more than five decades.
Zimring: If you were going to pick one year when, from the perspective of balanced policy, everything went haywire in the United States, you’d pick 1994.
Newscaster (in archived footage): In Northern California, a major break in the search for 12-year-old Polly Klaas, the Petaluma girl abducted from a slumber party two weeks ago.
Reporter: 1994 was the year that anger reached a boiling point over the shocking rape and murder of Polly Klaas, a suburban child kidnapped from a slumber party.
Zimring: It was the, the most innocent kid in the most innocent setting. If you’re looking for something the middle class is going to worry about and be terrified about, it would be that one of our kids sitting in her living room gets removed.
Reporter: It emerged that the young girl’s killer, Richard Allen Davis, had been released early from his most recent stint in prison.
Public outrage over the murder focused on a revolving-door justice system that was releasing violent felons back to the streets.
Quickly, politicians from across the spectrum called for tougher punishments.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.): For those of us in public life, she makes us all the more determined to tighten our laws, to keep repeat offenders behind bars.
Reporter: The victim’s father, Marc Klaas, emerged as a leader in the push to rewrite California’s sentencing laws.
Marc Klaas: We resolved that we would try to be part of that process of, of correcting a broken system. And we wanted to do that to give meaning to Polly’s death, quite frankly.
Reporter: Klaas joined with the families of other victims to urge state lawmakers to target repeat offenders. California Gov. Pete Wilson signed a “three strikes and you’re out” law in March of 1994. Six months later, Bill Clinton signed a national version, with Marc Klaas at his side.
President Bill Clinton: Let us roll up our sleeves to roll back this awful tide of violence and reduce crime in our country.
Reporter: Inspired by California, long mandatory sentences for a wide range of crimes became the law of the land.
Klaas: I think that three strikes has proven to be very effective. California, like many, many other states, started to get tough on crime.
Reporter: Today, Marc Klaas is campaigning against Proposition 36.
Klaas: Now we’re seeing people with their cynical legislation that’s based on false arguments come around and try to undo everything that’s been done, and it breaks my heart. Because, number one, it’s undoing a legacy that I’ve tried to build on my daughter’s behalf, and it’s also going to be realized in the victimization of countless more people that then will have to go through many of the things that we’ve had to go through.
Reporter: In the decades since, America embraced tough-on-crime policies. Its prison population has nearly doubled. Today, the U.S. has over 140,000 people serving life sentences.
One of them is Forrest Lee Jones, a third-striker doing 25 years to life.
Forrest Lee Jones: My third strike is what they call first-degree burglary of an unoccupied dwelling. That’s entering an unoccupied dwelling with intent to commit larceny. I went inside of an apartment and stole a VCR.
Reporter: At San Quentin prison near San Francisco, Jones leads a prisoner support group called Hope for Strikers. Most of the men here say their third strikes weren’t violent.
Eddie Griffin: My name is Eddie Griffin, and I got 27 years to life for possession of cocaine.
Joey Mason: My third strike is burglary of an unoccupied dwelling. It was my first relapse after being clean and sober for almost 10 years.
Reporter: Our analysis of state data shows that while three strikers are more likely to have drug issues than other inmates, they are not more prone to violence.
James Metters: My third strike was for a second-degree robbery, unarmed robbery, and I received a sentence of 35 years to life. For me, I didn’t even know I had two strikes. I thought that you have to have, you know, rape and all this stuff. That I never – this is my second time coming to prison. I never even did a parole violation before.
Mason: The other thing is …
Reporter: Ironically, some of these prisoners even supported the original three strikes law that keeps them behind bars, like Joey Mason, who lived in Polly Klaas’ hometown.
Mason: So I – it was a frenzy. We were going around putting posters up, and they had a, a command center for everybody go out looking for Polly, and it, it devastated a lot of people. But no one, I don’t believe in my heart that – I never believed that three strikes was going to go after us men.
Sajad Shakoor: I actually supported three strikes initially. I thought it was a good law, to be honest with you, because it was sold as a – if you, if you cannot stay out of prison, then chances are, you probably belong in prison
Reporter: This man committed two burglaries as a teen. He was sent to prison for life after being convicted of instigating a fistfight.
Shakoor: I didn’t participate in the fight. When I found out they were looking for me, I went to turn myself in and not thinking much of it. I didn’t think I was a three-striker. I didn’t think what I did right now was actually a felony that was going to give me 25 to life.
Reporter: Jones believes that many voters supported three strikes because they were not fully aware of the consequences.
Jones: And at the time, the people didn’t realize that they were giving life sentences to petty offenders, but over the past 18 years, because of the publicity of all the different people they’ve given life sentences to, the public is more educated now. And because of the money that they’ve been spending on this law, too, taking away from schools, the public is more ready now, I think, to amend the law because of the injustices they see and the cost.
Gelb: I think what people have finally realized is that we’re not going to build our way out of this.
Reporter: Gelb says the costly legacy of three strikes laws has forced states to look for new approaches.
Gelb: The economy and the state budget situation is an additive. It’s not the fuel. The main fuel, what’s really driving the change, is the research that shows more effective, less expensive alternatives for nonviolent offenders.
Reporter: But change is hard. The law has become enormously popular with law enforcement.
Carl Adams: The people of 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.
We’re trying to protect our communities.
Reporter: Carl Adams heads the California District Attorneys Association. He recently testified before state legislators, arguing that any changes to the three strikes law could be dangerous.
Adams: The focus has to be on community safety. The focus has to be on preventing multiple victims in our communities, if we can do that. And we don’t want to wait for another victim. Those who support Prop. 36 would say that you should wait. You should have a, a third serious and violent felony crime and a victim of that crime in our communities before you exercise the 25-to-life option.
Reporter: Adams and others in California law enforcement, like Sheriff Scott Jones of Sacramento County, claim that three strikes has done its job: deterring crime.
Scott Jones: Studies have shown that approximately 6 percent of the people are responsible for 60 percent of the crime. It only stands to reason that if you impact and remove from society these 6 percenters, as I call them, you will have an impact, and that’s what three strikes has done successfully for almost 20 years.
Reporter: Over the past two decades, violent crime has fallen dramatically across the United States, by nearly 50 percent. But there have been big drops in crime even in states that don’t have three strikes laws.
Some prominent law enforcement officials are supporting Proposition 36, even appearing in television ads funded by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros and others.
Jeff Rosen: Prop. 36 will make the punishment fit the crime, so we can focus on dangerous and violent criminals and reduce prison overcrowding. Make the punishment fit the crime.
Reporter: Jeff Rosen is a district attorney from California’s Silicon Valley. He believes the public is ready to back reform.
Rosen: The crime rate has fallen. However, there’s also recognition that the three strikes law has been applied too broadly, too bluntly, and the reach has been too great, and some people are serving life sentences for relatively minor crimes. The pendulum is swinging back in California.
Reporter: Activists in California campaigning for changes in three strikes laws are also trying to raise awareness about conditions inside prisons.
Lisa Valles: Right there – that’s the size of their cell. And they live there 23 hours a day.
Reporter: This mock cell was built to call attention to the reality facing inmates held in special security units. Human rights groups say the stark conditions amount to solitary confinement. Marie Levin’s brother has been held for more than two decades in a cell like this one at Pelican Bay prison in Northern California.
Marie Levin: I walked in here three minutes – I walked around in a little circle, and it was like I had to get out of here, because I just couldn’t take it. I couldn’t take it.
Reporter: Pelican Bay was one of America’s first so-called supermax prisons. Like the nation’s three strikes laws, these lockdowns were a response to the crime wave of the 1980s. Today, Pelican Bay is facing growing criticism and a class-action lawsuit.
This is where some of the most dangerous criminals are held – powerful gang members and other violent inmates. Few visitors are allowed inside.
For entry, stab-proof vests are required.
Locked day and night in windowless units, inmates can only leave their cells after their clothes and shoes are taken off and searched. Their hands are cuffed even before the cell door is opened.
Corrections officer: 120.
Reporter: Many have been convicted of murders on the streets and assaults in prison.
Jeremy Beasley: If, if they, if they were to cut me loose and I went back out to the mainline, I would have killed somebody or, at the very least, stabbed somebody else.
Corrections officer: Ready on 108.
Reporter: Jeremy Beasley says he was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a violent prison gang, when he was put in the special unit. He says the bleak environment affects even the most hardened criminals.
Beasley: Everybody changes in, in a certain way. I’ve seen guys that, that pull into themselves. I’ve seen guys that, you know, hear things that ain’t there. I’ve seen guys that uh, that uh, uh – you know, anger issues. That’s one of the biggest things about being back here is, is the anger issues.
Greg Lewis: The design is based on providing the maximum amount of security in housing these men separate from our general population, and it provides for the safety of my staff, which is paramount.
Reporter: Shutting down the gangs is his top priority, says Warden Greg Lewis.
Lewis: These men are highly violent. We’ve had a history of, of staff assaults by these men. These units are segregation units. They are not isolation units.
Reporter: Except for escorts and medical visits, the men have no direct human contact. When Beasley is not locked in his cell, he’s here, in this exercise pen, by himself, each day, for about an hour.
The ceiling above him shows glimpses of the sky, but Beasley hasn’t seen the rest of the outside world in years.
Reporter (to Beasley): When was the last time you saw the moon?
Beasley: The moon? Don’t – I don’t even know. It would have to of been back in, in, in ’98.
Reporter (to Beasley): 1998?
Beasley: Yeah, 1998, at the very least. Yeah.
Reporter: Beasley has agreed to drop out of the gang and share information with the authorities. Others here claim they were unfairly accused of belonging to a prison gang.
Pietro Sartoresi: I was never able to confront those who confined me here. It’s all hearsay.
Reporter: Pietro Sartoresi says with limited rights to appeal, he’s had to endure harsh conditions for years.
Sartoresi: We’re not allowed a cup. We’re not allowed a bowl. We’re not allowed music other than what they give us on the institutional channel. We’re not allowed phone calls. I haven’t seen my family since I’ve been busted.
Suzanne Nossel: Pelican Bay is a vivid example of a criminal justice system at its most extreme.
Reporter: Suzanne Nossel is executive director of Amnesty International USA. Amnesty recently published a report alleging human rights violations and psychological damage among inmates at Pelican Bay.
Nossel: Anybody that doesn’t recognize that the severity of these conditions are – those who are asked to endure for decades on end – the notion that is not cruel or inhumane, I think, is, is just very unpersuasive.
Reporter: In Washington, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are leading a broad review of prison policies.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.): There are just too many people behind bars. And they’re being held for lengthy periods of time that don’t reflect the actual crime that they committed. Why is it that the United States leads the world when it comes to incarceration? Are we that different? Are we that evil?
Reporter: In June, Senator Dick Durbin chaired a hearing on the use of solitary confinement in America’s prisons.
Anthony Graves: I was kept in solitary confinement under some of the worst conditions imaginable – with the filth, no food, the total disrespect of human dignity. I lived under the rules of a system that is literally, literally driving men out of their minds.
Reporter: Anthony Graves was sent to death row for murder but was exonerated after 18 years.
Graves: I had no physical contact with another human being for 10 of the 18 years I was incarcerated. Today, I have a hard time being around a group of people for long periods of time without feeling too crowded. No one can begin to imagine the psychological effects isolation has on another human being.
Durbin: I believe that, that voters want to make sure that those in government are spending their money well and not wasting it. 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. They’re looking for the right balance in this.
Reporter: Durbin says it’s time to consider the financial costs of prisons, where the price tag for one year of lockup is more than a year of college tuition.
Durbin: There are things we can do that sound tough that are a waste of money and lead America down a path that we don’t want to go down.
Reporter: As Election Day approaches, the campaign to change California’s three strikes law is hitting hard on the burden for taxpayers.
George Gascón (San Francisco district attorney, in campaign ad): Save millions of dollars, instead of wasting millions on nonviolent offenders …
Steve Cooley (Los Angeles County district attorney, in campaign ad): And make the punishment fit the crime.
Jeff Rosen (in campaign ad): That’s why law enforcement leaders like us …
Cooley (in campaign ad): Are voting yes.
Rosen (in campaign ad): Yes.
Cooley (in campaign ad): Yes on Prop. 36.
Reporter: Opponents of the measure counter that public safety is worth the price.
Carl Adams: We want to remove the worst offenders from society for the sake of our communities, and we want to do it no matter what it costs, and we want to do it no matter what the impact is on prison population.
The three strikes law hasn’t changed since it was enacted. And I don’t think that public attitudes about wanting safe communities has changed at all.
Reporter: But a surprising coalition of liberals and conservatives, including taxpayer watchdog Grover Norquist, agrees that the costs of incarceration are changing the rules of the game.
Michael Romano: This is one of the areas where both conservatives and progressives can come together and say, “You know what? This isn’t working.” It’s not working in terms of making people safer. It’s costing us a fortune, and it’s ruining the, the lives of people who, you know, yes, have committed crimes, but have never hurt anyone before.
Reporter: If the polls are accurate, the initiative could pass. But only a few thousand three-strikers would qualify for possible release.
Reporter (to inmates): How many of you will still most likely remain behind bars?
[Five men raise their hands.]
Reporter: Still, both sides agree that the stakes are high.
Marc Klaas: There have been nearly a dozen attempts to overturn three strikes in the last 19 years, and to date, every one of those has failed. And why is that? Because the people get it, they understand it, they appreciate it, and it’s kept them safer in their homes and on the streets.
Dick Durbin: We have come down hard on crime, many times incarcerating people for lengthy periods of time, at great expense to governments and taxpayers. Is there a way to achieve a better result, a safer America, at a lower cost, without the human toll that’s associated with some of these incarcerations? And I sense that more Americans are open to that conversation across the political spectrum.
Reporter: Indeed, this year, both Republicans and Democrats adopted party platforms calling for prison reform. What happens in California on Election Day will reveal much about how open American voters are to change.
Corrections officer: Lock it up.
Adam Gelb: 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. I think that what happens in California on Election Day is going to resonate loudly across the country in terms of criminal justice policy for years to come.
Producer / Reporter: Monica Lam
Correspondent: Michael Montgomery
Editor / Story Architect: David Ritsher
Associate Producer: Sharon Pieczenik
Field Producers: Singeli Agnew, Dan Freed
Director of Photography: Singeli Agnew
Additional Camera: Roberto Daza, Monica Lam, Jason Longo, Ryan Loughlin, Rob Rainey, Zachary Stauffer, Oral User
Sound: Don Hooper, Sharon Pieczenik, Adithya Sambamurthy, Matthew Sarnecki
Production Assistants: Kerri Connolly, Roberto Daza, Matthew Sarnecki, Ryan Loughlin
Senior Producer: Steve Talbot
Executive Producer: Sharon Tiller