Out of Prison, and Staying Out, After Third Strike in California

Cutting Recidivism Rates

William Taylor III settled into his subsidized apartment this month. He was serving a life sentence under California’s three-strikes law, but he was released after voters overturned it in 2012. Credit Monica Almeida/The New York Times

William Taylor III, once a lifer in state prison for two robbery convictions and the intent to sell a small packet of heroin, was savoring a moment he had scarcely dared to imagine: his first day alone, in a place of his own.

“I love the apartment,” he said of the subsidized downtown studio, which could barely contain the double bed he insisted on having. “And I love that I’m free after 18 years of being controlled.”

“My window has blinds, and I can open and close them!” he exclaimed to visitors the other day, reveling in an unaccustomed, and sometimes scary, sense of autonomy.

Mr. Taylor, 58, is one of more than 2,000 former inmates who were serving life terms under California’s three-strikes law, but who were freed early after voters scaled it back in 2012. Under the original law, repeat offenders received life sentences, with no possibility of parole for at least 25 years, even if the third felony was as minor as shoplifting.

Formerly branded career criminals, those released over the last two years have returned to crime at a remarkably low rate — partly because they aged in prison, experts say, and participation in crime declines steadily after age 25, but also because of the intense practical aid and counseling many have received. And California’s experience with the release of these inmates provides one way forward as the country considers how to reduce incarceration without increasing crime.

Cutting Recidivism Rates“I hope the enduring lesson is that all of these people are not hopeless recidivists,” said Michael Romano, director of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School, which provides legal aid to prisoners and training to public defenders.

“Those who remain dangerous should be kept behind bars,” added Mr. Romano, who was an author of the 2012 revisions. “But there are many people in prison who are no threat to public safety.”

More than 20 states joined California in adopting some form of a three-strikes law. But California’s was perhaps the country’s harshest and contributed to a soaring prison population. The state, under court order to reduce prison crowding, has diverted low-level felons to county jails and, after another voter initiative last year, has redefined minor thefts and drug possession as misdemeanors.

Success for those emerging from long prison terms does not come easily. These inmates are entering a 21st-century world they have never learned to navigate. Many, including Mr. Taylor, have histories of psychiatric and drug problems, and nearly all would seem to be at risk for homelessness and new arrests.

To help with the re-entry, Mr. Taylor first spent seven months in therapy and coaching in a transitional residence, a structured setting with bunk mates. Now he has a spot in an apartment building with a counselor on the first floor.

California’s three-strikes initiative was adopted by voters in 1994, when fear of crime was at a peak, fueled by a former prisoner’s murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas. Proponents said the law would keep habitual predators behind bars for good.

But jarring stories of a different sort appeared almost immediately, as breathtaking sentences were given not only to killers and rapists but also to small-time burglars and purse snatchers.

In 2012, with crime down and prisons overflowing, California voters had second thoughts. Proposition 36 held that many prisoners whose third offenses were not violent or serious would be eligible for resentencing, so long as a judge did not find an “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.”

Of about 9,000 prisoners who had been sentenced under the three-strikes law, about 3,000 qualified for a rehearing; the other 6,000, with more violent records, did not. As of late February, 2,008 inmates had been released for time served, and 92 were serving out reduced sentences. More than 700 cases remain to be adjudicated.

Cutting Recidivism Rates

Judge William C. Ryan of Los Angeles County Superior Court has decided the fates of about 600 prisoners so far and has turned down eight who were otherwise eligible for resentencing, he said. Credit Monica Almeida/The New York Times

Judges ruled against just 132 of the eligible inmates.

After being free for an average of more than 18 months, just 4.7 percent of the former life prisoners have returned to prison for new crimes, usually burglaries or drug crimes. By comparison, Mr. Romano calculates based on state data, of all inmates released from California prisons, about 45 percent return for new crimes over a similar period.

A large share of the resentencing cases were filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, where one judge, William C. Ryan, has decided the fates of about 600 prisoners so far. He has turned down eight who were otherwise eligible for resentencing, he said.

“A few of them look like out-and-out sociopaths to me,” Judge Ryan said in an interview. But in most cases, after considering the inmates’ ages, their behavior in prison and the support awaiting them, he is willing to take the chance.

“I’m not sure the taxpayers need to spend $45,000 a year on these guys if they are not dangerous,” he said.

A majority of the pending cases are in Los Angeles. Judge Ryan said that two more judges would join him in March, but that it would still take a year to hear the remaining petitions. Virtually all of those cases face opposition from prosecutors and require public hearings to decide.

One of Judge Ryan’s denials involved David Smith, who repeatedly bilked elderly people out of money by impersonating a relative in need. At Mr. Smith’s third-strike proceeding in 2002, for defrauding another 12 people ages 73 to 91, the fed-up trial judge sentenced him to 12 consecutive terms of 25 years to life.

Judge Ryan said Mr. Smith had shown no evidence of rehabilitation or remorse. “At some point, society must say enough is enough,” he ruled last March.

Freed inmates in California leave prison gates with $200 and face the intimidating initial months that are the prime time for new arrests.

Cutting Recidivism Rates

To help with the re-entry, William Taylor III first spent seven months in therapy and coaching in a transitional residence, a structured setting with bunk mates. Now he has a counselor on the first floor of his apartment building. Credit Monica Almeida/The New York Times

“Just navigating the basics — getting an ID, health insurance — can be tough,” said Mark Faucette, director of community relations for the Amity Foundation, which runs drug treatment centers and the transitional housing center in South Los Angeles, Amistad de Los Angeles, where Mr. Taylor stayed.

“But re-entry means so much more,” Mr. Faucette said. “There’s a lot of emotional work. They’re moving from a number to a name.”

Christopher Benton, who was finishing his third week at the residence, said he had spent 36 of his 49 years behind bars — the last 18 of them after a three-strikes sentence for drug possession.

“I know I need a lot of work,” Mr. Benton said. “I need to change the way I think and not look at every situation as, ‘How can I make money out of this?’ ”

Mr. Taylor, whose convictions did not involve guns or serious violence, was freed last June by Judge Ryan, who stipulated that he must stay under official supervision and receive mental health services.

When the moment came, Mr. Taylor was overwhelmed by doubt. “I was afraid that someone would do something to make me react and get arrested again,” he said.

Mr. Taylor admits to a paranoid streak that has led him to angry disputes. Overly self-conscious about a drifting, blind eye, he wore sunglasses day and night when he first arrived at the Amity center.

But he says he has learned to trust others for the first time and hopes to cultivate his passion: writing lyrics for what he envisions as “pop gospel” songs, with lines like “Complaining ain’t no way to be / Just think things naturally.”

Mr. Taylor has moved into what is known as permanent supportive housing, in a building run by the nonprofit SRO Housing Corporation. For rent, he pays one-third of his monthly disability check, leaving him with $514 a month to live on. He has a sister who drives him to Walmart for groceries.

Cutting Recidivism RatesThe apartment building is in a barren warehouse district, and homeless people camp on nearby sidewalks. But to Mr. Taylor, it may as well be a palace.

For his first night in his new home, he said, he would cook oatmeal and have a fruit cup. And then, he said, he was going to soak in a hot bath for the first time in nearly two decades.

Eric Ekholm
The New York Times

About Eric Ekholm

Erik Eckholm has held a variety of reporting and editing positions at The New York Times, including, most recently, five years as Beijing bureau chief. After graduating from Occidental in 1971, where he majored in political science, he received an M.A. in international affairs from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

He spent several years with non-governmental groups doing research and writing on environment and third world development issues and wrote three books on related subjects: Losing Ground (1976), The Picture of Health (1977) and Down to Earth (1982).

He served on the policy planning staff of the State Department in 1979 and 1980. From 1982 to 1984 he was managing editor of Natural History magazine in New York. He joined The New York Times in 1985 as a reporter on environmental and medical issues in 1985 and over time has been the paper’s science and health editor, editor of the week in review and deputy foreign editor. He was Beijing bureau chief from 1998 to 2003. In 2003-2004, he was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and in the summer of 2004 he began reporting for the Times on Iraqi reconstruction.

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