CRIME STORY has received permission to re-print Michael Romano‘s newsletters from Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project whose mission is to reverse the most unjust criminal sentences. Romano and his colleague Susan Champion were interviewed by Amanda Knox for CRIME STORY and you can find the podcast and the transcript of that interview here. You can find a story about Romano’s participation in a U.S. Congressional field hearing on criminal justice reform here.
We’re lucky that we celebrate more victories than mourn losses, but sometimes the frustration, sadness, and anger from our setbacks can be as inspiring for us to work harder for our clients and keep pushing for systemic reform.
23 years ago, our client C.G. was sentenced to life under the Three Strikes law for a nonviolent purse-snatch robbery. The victim testified at trial that our client grabbed her purse with just enough force to take it from her loose grip and that she was not threatened, hurt, or even touched during the crime. Our client did not get far before he was arrested, and the victim’s purse and its belongings were all returned.
Last week, C.G. came before the parole board to determine whether he should be released. During all his decades behind bars, C.G. committed a total of seven prison rule violations. The most serious violation, according to authorities, was his attempt to possess inmate manufactured alcohol 8 years ago.
Yet the parole board found that these infractions proved that C.G. was unworthy of parole because he could not obey institutional rules and that he remained an “unreasonable risk to society.” They said they would review his case again in five years.
C.G. is a Navy veteran. He was born in Solinas, California, and before he turned 12 years old, his father was murdered and his mother committed suicide. He went to live with his grandmother, but she also died before long, and C.G. was alone and homeless before he was 15. In 1987, C.G. enlisted in the Navy to escape his chaotic and dangerous neighborhood, but he suffered a freak spinal injury on board a ship docked in Oakland. To this day, receives treatment for his spinal injury and mental health services to help address childhood traumas.
Prison staff have described C.G. as a “model” prisoner. A risk assessment designed and administered by prison officials found that he was “low risk” to commit a new crime if released from custody. He participates in rehabilitative programming and works as a prison barber and custodian.
While the parole board’s decision may fuel our energy, we are devastated for our client. We will appeal the decision, including launching a challenge to the constitutionality of California’s parole standard under new helpful precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court. It will be a slow, long-shot appeal—but that’s our specialty, and we vow that C.G. will not die behind bars.
SOME GOOD NEWS:
As heartsick we are for C.G, we are equally proud and encouraged that the state legislature just passed six reforms recommended by the California Committee on the Revision of the Penal Code, with whom the Project partners to develop criminal law policy. The bills include reforms to California’s racially biased gang enhancement statute, elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, retroactive application of sentence reductions, improvements to California’s “second look” sentencing law, reduced confinement for people with severe mental illness, and direction to judges to reduce sentences for juveniles, people with mental illness, and when there’s evidence of racially discriminatory punishments.
Together these bills will immediately reduce sentences for tens of thousands of people currently incarcerated, encourage leniency and discretion in mitigating circumstances, incentivize treatment and rehabilitation for people with mental illness, and help reduce racial bias.
We’re incredibly grateful all of the people who helped pass these bills — especially to Three Strikes Project alum Tom Nosewicz (SLS ’08), who is legal director of the Committee; Project staff attorney Lara Hoffman, who helps staff the Committee’s research and policy development; other Committee staff and consultants—and of course all of the lawmakers, their staff, and advocates who moved the bills through the legislature.
The bills now await Governor Newsom’s signature, and of course we hope he will sign them into law.