How I went from a Three Strikes lifer to participant in California's criminal justice reform movement
With my partner-in-crime Keith Chandler at the wheel, we're driving through San Francisco on our way to Stanford University Law School for the Three Strikes Summit, a deeply personal topic to both of us. Three Strikes is partly why I served 15 years in prison, and Stanford's Three Strikes Project is a big reason why I was released earlier this year.
Chandler is a renowned activist, ex-lifer, and my comrade in the struggle to reintegrate inmates back into life in the outside world. I have become a fanatic on a mission, and this May 2 event will feature many of the top criminal justice players responsible for last year's Three Strikes reform measure, from Attorney General Kamala Harris to San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon.
So the path we carve through the City takes us deep into the heart of the reform movement that changed my life. Change is in the air, and I'm following the scent back to its roots.
Three Strikes as a metaphor made perfect sense. In the 1980s, the justice system was a revolving door. Relatively short sentences for serious and/or violent crimes were the norm, sentences often cut in half by parole. Lengthy records of arrests and convictions fueled a movement to get tough on crime.
As per usual, bad things happened. In 1993, sexual predator Richard Allen Davis killed Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old girl from Petaluma. A general consensus formed that repeat offenders needed to be punished to the fullest. So prison industrialists came up with a catchy solution: three strikes and you're out. Commit three violent crimes, the authors sold to the public in 1994, and you'll serve 25 years to life.
However, the fine print expanded the concept to any third felony -- even crimes that would be misdemeanors to non-parolees -- and California's prisons swelled.
In many ways, I was a Three Strikes poster child. As a wild youngster in Sacramento, I was a menace. At 18 in 1984, I began a four-year spree of crimes that included armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, and residential burglary. For those transgressions, among others, I received a 12-year sentence in 1988.
I embraced sobriety, college, and writing as I served six discipline-free years. Back then, we had a right to participate in rehabilitative endeavors. Effective programs like cognitive restructuring and life-skills classes might have been foreign concepts, but I benefitted from college, weight training, and family visiting.
But I was still trapped by my criminal thinking — plagued by my nefarious associations. Though I hid it well, I was all fucked up.
In 1994, I was paroled into a whole new ball game: the era of three strikes. As soon as the law passed, the horror stories began to amass. Guys were being struck out for stealing from stores or possessing small amounts of drugs. California became the republic of the intolerant. Mired by myriad imperfections, I stepped up to the plate and swung for the fences.
A 28-year-old undergraduate with a range of goals, I started a construction company and contemplated graduate school. And instead of taking my construction company seriously, or even finishing my undergraduate education, I started using and selling meth — partying like there was no tomorrow.
In my broken way of thinking, I convinced myself that supplementing my income made perfect sense. In reality, it was an excuse to get high for free and it all fell apart. Two parole violations for drug cases seamlessly lead to a felony drug case in 1999. I went from baller to squalor, and hit a line drive right to the catcher. I struck out and faced a lifetime behind bars.