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May 13, 2009

"Law students help free three-strikes offenders"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting Los Angeles Times article.  Here are excerpts:

Stanford law clinic ... students are devoted to reversing what they view as miscarriages of justice under the three-strikes law.   Their work involves a new twist on a strategy employed by innocence projects nationwide in which students have helped overturn wrongful convictions and sparked debate over the death penalty. Rather than championing the innocent, the Stanford students are advocating for prisoners guilty of what they view as relatively minor offenses and raising the question of how much prison time is too much.

The effort touches a nerve.  Fifteen years ago, California voters overwhelmingly approved the three-strikes sentencing law. The state rejected a reform initiative five years ago.

The Stanford clinic is taking aim at the most controversial part of the law, which imposes at least 25 years to life in prison even for a nonviolent felony, such as petty theft or drug possession, as long as an offender's criminal history includes at least two violent or serious crimes.

Students and their instructors hope to redress what they call grossly unfair sentences for minor crimes and spur changes in the law. Their clients, they say, illustrate how the justice system has unfairly ensnared low-level defendants whose crimes are often linked to mental illness, drug abuse or extreme poverty....

Mike Reynolds, who wrote the three-strikes law after his 18-year-old daughter's murder in Fresno, said many prisoners who have minor third strikes also have long, violent criminal records.  He said voters knew exactly whom they were putting away when they approved the law and called the Stanford clinic's work misguided. "Do they understand that they could be turning someone loose who could get out and hurt somebody?" he asked.

Since September, students have persuaded judges to lessen the sentences of four prisoners, including Williams. Three have been released so far, having already served their reduced prison terms, which ranged from six to 10 years.

More than 8,400 inmates are serving possible life terms under the three-strikes law, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Of those, more than 1,300 were sentenced for drug offenses and nearly 2,500 for property crimes.  A department spokeswoman said the agency has not compiled data on what serious or violent felonies those inmates previously committed.

Since its launch in 2006, the Stanford Criminal Defense Clinic has been deluged with letters from inmates and their relatives pleading for help. None have attorneys to handle their appeals, the clinic says.  Instructors at the clinic sift through the letters and review appeals records in search of clients who appear to be good candidates for their help. Most of the inmates they aid have nonviolent criminal records. "There's a huge number of people who fit into that category," said Michael S. Romano, a Stanford law school lecturer who launched the clinic.

May 13, 2009 at 02:28 PM | Permalink


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Hurray for the Stanford law clinic! There should be more clinics doing work like this.

Posted by: reader | May 13, 2009 2:59:52 PM

All released prisoners should be housed in Stanford dorms, at government expense, of course. After all, they are safe petty criminals.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 13, 2009 4:58:19 PM

I, for one, am enjoying Supremacy Claus more with each and every comment. Classic.

Posted by: pubdefender | May 13, 2009 6:32:04 PM

Yes, I also highly enjoy the comments of Supremacy Claus. He/she is no doubt one of Prof. Berman's students, but is clearly better suited for a career in comedy. Keep at that screenplay, Supremacy Claus!

Posted by: CN | May 13, 2009 6:50:39 PM

Pub: You spend much time in physical proximity to violent people. Stay vigilant, stay safe.

Question. Assume the innocence rate on death row is 20%. What is the innocence rate in a regular criminal trial? What is the innocence rate in a plea bargain?

If you know the answer is high, is that a challenge to your pride in craft? Or are clients commodified, and processed in an assembly line?

I care even about your specialty. I do not deride your work as others do, as long as your take care to defend the innocent.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 13, 2009 7:18:08 PM

Not one of Prof. Berman's students. However, that is a good idea. I may apply to law school at Ohio State, recently derided by name by Antonin Scalia in a public forum. I have an urge to immediately apply to any school derided by the author of the Scalia Bounce in murder.


(read from the bottom)

Every time any law prof utters a supernatural idea, I take Mao's Little Red Book, and start pounding it on the desk. I invite the students to chant, "Death to the cult. Death to the cult." That would follow just about every third sentence, since almost the entire law education is Medieval, anti-scientific garbage that violates the Establishment Clause.

I would be really appreciative if Prof. Berman could write me a letter of recommendation to get me in.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 13, 2009 10:30:52 PM

I agree with Supremacy Claus.


Posted by: lucas law center | May 13, 2009 10:32:25 PM

S Claus:

I don't know what the innocence rate in death or other cases is, although I'm willing to believe (and do believe), based only on personal experience and what I've read on the topic, that it's higher than most people realize or acknowledge, and too high for anyone of good conscience to accept.

And, to answer your question: "Yes," I believe that some of my clients have been legally and/or factually innocent, and when those people have been convicted by way of plea or trial it has sometimes -- maybe even often -- been due to my failure as their advocate. And yes, that failure has often stemmed from having too many cases to devote to each client the time, attention, and resources that he or she deserved. Fortunately, I am now working in federal court, where I have about half the caseload I did as a state public defender, better resources (e.g., an actual expert and investigative budget, which means I don't have to beg some hack judge for pennies to properly prepare a case), and a lot more time to work up my cases.

I would also note that I know, from personal experience, that the failures weren't always -- maybe even often -- weren't mine. I can think of several cases where, for example, pure luck led to the revelation of suppressed exculpatory evidence by the prosecution. I'm quite certain there were other such cases that I still don't know about. For a recent example of such shenanigans, see the news reports re: the US Attys office for the Dist of Massachusetts and their face-off with Chief Judge Wolf in the Boston Globe (and probably other news outlets).

All that aside, what I liked about your comment is that I understood it to suggest that Stanford, and probably the students at the legal clinic, would not be so enthralled with the prospect of living with those they had freed. I think that's exactly right, although I suspect you and I would draw different lessons from that insight.

Posted by: pubdefender | May 14, 2009 8:34:54 AM

...because there's a housing shortage on campus.

Posted by: -- | May 14, 2009 9:33:50 AM

Why should the released inmate get herded into a slum neighborhood, single handedly increasing public victimization, while the campus remains a relatively crime free Eden? Why don't Stanford law students deserve as much exposure to crime risk as poor folks?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 14, 2009 4:22:02 PM

dude epa was, not too long ago, the "murder capitol of the U.S." - sls syudents don't live on campus - there's a shortage of housing. they live in epa.

Posted by: --- | May 14, 2009 10:31:06 PM

Then pray the sls students get jacked by one of their loosed little darlings. See how these criminal lovers like what they are handing the public.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 14, 2009 11:07:09 PM

The only thing we have to fear is lay people.

Posted by: S.cotus | May 15, 2009 4:22:40 AM

Lay people are not in charge of the criminal law, and in utter failure. They are not allowing 99 of 100 crimes to go without a consequence. They are not incarcerating massive numbers of innocent people, nor putting innocent people to death. Those ghoulish mistakes are all yours. And the criminal law is in utter failure, except for one achievement, the rent.

The lawyer should be banned from all benches, legislative seats, and policy positions in the executive by a Constitutional Amendment. Incompetent, self-dealing, a threat to public safety.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 15, 2009 7:18:58 AM

easy on the haterade dude.

Posted by: --- | May 15, 2009 8:02:55 AM

Mike Reynold is a classic misguided victim's family member. There are many classier family members who have tried to channel their pain into good things for society. Reynonlds is quite the opposite. Instead, of trying to bring positive change, he visits his pain on others by advocating overly-harsh sentences. Why does society listen to this sad, sad, man and his ilk? He should be condemned.

Posted by: Mark | May 15, 2009 2:43:42 PM

Dude, easy on the criminal loverade. If you are a law student, you have shown no evidence of it. You should be aware, a criminal cult enterprise has made you believe in supernatural core doctrines. Dude, you have been played. You believe in imaginary concepts.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 15, 2009 3:20:32 PM

I am a student in the medical field a friend of mine this person is like a brother to me I have known since I was 12 has recieved life in prison on a 3rd strike for grand theft auto he has already served 12 years and is currently in corcoran state prison. I talk to mike just about every day and he is sending his mom his court papers from his case, I think 25 to life is a little excessive for stealing a car if anything the guy needed drug intervention not prison. I would appreciate an email or some advise

Posted by: Danny | Sep 25, 2009 2:10:38 PM

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