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A Voice For The Forsaken

Publication Date: 
June 11, 2009
The Economist

The Economist ran this feature on the Criminal Defense Clinic's effort to remedy criminal sentences issued under California's Three Strikes law. Noted are Michael Romano (supervising instructor) and Galit Lipa (clinical teaching fellow):

In 1995, a year after Californians voted for a “three strikes and you’re out” law that guaranteed much tougher sentences for criminals who reoffend, Curtis Wilkerson stole a pair of socks that cost $2.50. This is usually counted as a misdemeanour, but a prosecutor in Los Angeles got it classed as a felony. Since Mr Wilkerson had already been convicted of abetting two robberies in 1981, when he was 19, his petty theft was counted as the third strike. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Getting Mr Wilkerson and others like him out of prison is now the mission of a group of students at Stanford Law School. Under the supervision of two teachers, Michael Romano and Galit Lipa, they try to bring the most egregious injustices of California’s three-strikes law before judges. About 1,000 “strikers” have written to them from prison, and about 20 are active cases. Three have been released so far.


...Some 25% of the 170,000 people in California’s overcrowded prisons are second- or third-“strikers”. And although 43% of them committed violent crimes, the rest are in for petty theft, drugs or other lesser crimes. Among Stanford’s clients, one stole a dollar in loose change; another swiped some tools from a parked truck.


...the team at Stanford see individual tragedies. Their clients tend to be retarded or mentally ill and were addicted to drugs, homeless or abused as children. None has been violent, but all, says Mr Romano, have “been forsaken”, by parents, teachers, lawyers, judges and society.