The California Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School and Mount Tamalpais College are considering a class where law students and incarcerated people sit together to learn about criminal justice reform.
Mike Romano, the director of the Three Strikes Project and author of Proposition 36, a law designed to reduce the sentences of nonviolent third strike offenders, brought Three Strikes Project deputy director Susan Champion and staff attorney Milena Blake to San Quentin to pilot the idea during a two-day workshop.
“If you had a magic wand, what would you do to create a more just system?” Romano asked the incarcerated residents and his 16 law students in attendance.
Romano has been teaching at Stanford for more than 15 years. He has been appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to chair the committee to revise the penal code. Romano also recently celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the passage of Prop 36.
“I am confident that you guys have as much to teach our students as we do,” Romano said to the group of incarcerated students in attendance.
Champion, a former professional actor, started as one of Romano’s students. She helped secure the release of a nonviolent three striker under Prop 36, who went on to start his own successful business.
“I am really interested in finding ways to help people succeed,” Champion said. “A lot of reforms have left you behind and we want to hear from you. I really want this to be a two-way street. We really want to hear your perspective.”
In preparation for the class discussion, law students and incarcerated students were asked to read the same homework packet that analyzed the justice reform movement in California since realignment—a law that houses some nonviolent offenders sentenced to prison in county jails.
Romano discussed the history of reform in California beginning with the Plata/Coleman decisions that sent the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s medical and mental health services into federal receivership.
“After the U.S. Supreme Court found that CDCR was violating incarcerated people’s rights to adequate medical and mental health care, a series of laws developed,” Romano said.
Students began to list that series of reforms, which started with realignment, then Props 36 and 47, and finally Prop 57.
Staff attorney Milena Blake helped write the language for Prop 47, a law that reduced certain felonies to a misdemeanor. Romano pointed out that this law actually led to more releases than Proposition 36.
“If I had known Prop 36 was going to get 70% voter approval, I would have pushed for more,” Romano said. “I would have made sure those who had first-degree burglary cases qualified under the law.”
Romano said the reform movement must now include both future lawyers and the incarcerated in order to reach a place of equity, fairness and justice.
“Part of what I want you to take away from this conversation is that they are at the top of the legal pyramid and so are you,” Romano told the incarcerated.
Romano also asked students to think about what reforms could have the greatest impact today. He asked students to consider what category of people or groups they believe need policy changes the most.
Discussions erupted about violent offenders, youth offenders, the elderly, three strikers, people with long enhancements and the mentally ill.
The group also discussed whether or not lawmakers should be more focused on parole board reform.
“Should policymakers be focused on new reforms or implementation of reforms that have already been made?” Romano asked.
Once the students got comfortable working together, the discussion grew lively and incarcerated students joined with law students to strategize about what policies would make sense. At that point, nobody seemed to want the class to end.
At the close of the workshop, students spoke excitedly about the prospect of teaming up in the future for a class where both groups could get credit toward their educational degrees.
Cheyenne Joshua is one of Romano’s students. She is currently assisting a nonviolent three striker with his case. She has also interned with the public defender’s office. Joshua said participating in the workshop was helpful for her career goals.
“I think as a law student I need to hear incarcerated people’s opinions about crime and punishment,” Joshua said. “I enjoy helping individual clients, but what I really think I want to do is work at the policy level once I’m out of law school.”
Romano plans to return to San Quentin with his students in the spring.
“I really admire Jody and Amy and I love working with my students and Mount Tam students,” Romano said.