The meetings always begin with a prayer. They also end with one. And in between, it is clear why so much praying needs to be done. Because inside the old Craftsman home south of downtown Los Angeles, two dozen folks meet every Monday night to stoke a revolution.
Not a violent one, though they are angry. Not a desperate one, though they are passionate about their cause. No, this is a measured insurrection. One organized and carried out by ordinary citizens who are united in the simple yet daunting goal of changing one of the most significant criminal justice laws ever enacted in California:
Now to be clear, they do not ask that the landmark 1994 law be stricken. They want it changed. Despite its original intentions to crack down on career criminals, they believe that it has gone too far. It has locked up, sometimes for life, too many members of their families for petty crimes.
How else, they ask, do you describe a law that sends someone to prison for life for stealing two sips of gin. Or making off with soda cans. Or possessing a flake of cocaine.
So five years and almost 50,000 new prisoners after the law took effect, this group, Families to Amend California's Three Strikes, is pushing to make it apply only to violent felonies, not the drug crimes, petty thefts or burglaries that make up most convictions.
Under the current law, any ex-felon convicted of a "serious"--such as a burglary--or "violent" felony can see his potential prison time greatly enhanced if he is again found guilty of a felony. Even if that offense is not classified "serious" or "violent." Even if the earlier crimes were decades ago.
For a second strike, that means doubling of a normal prison sentence. And for strike three, it means going away for 25 years to life.
The group believes that only violent felonies should be considered second or third strikes and that no juvenile crime should count as a strike. In addition, members want those now serving time under three strikes to be resentenced under the proposed new rules.
"Let the time fit the crime" is how members state their case.
And they have their work cut out for them.
"No question, it will be an uphill battle," said Geri Silva, co-founder of the group. "There is no hope that we're going to have all the . . . politicians moving to change the law. It's not going to happen that way."
Instead, she and the other members believe that the law will be amended through a public awareness campaign--here and throughout California--that Sacramento lawmakers cannot ignore. Toward that end, this group of mothers, fathers, grandparents and others fans out every week to churches, schools and community halls to urge a change.
"Each thing we do in the community makes our voices stronger, and each person we educate makes our movement bigger," said Silva, who has had friends, but no relatives, imprisoned under the law.
And although the group has not reached its goal, it is also far from the place where it started. "We've taken steps," Silva said. "We're not at the beginning at all."
Launched two years ago in Los Angeles, the group now has chapters as diverse as California--in Oakland, Sacramento, San Jose, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Orange County. Statewide, according to Silva, the group has 600 to 700 active members and more than a thousand others on its mailing list.
Most of them have husbands or brothers in prison.
Micky Neal has both.
"My brother's last case was burglary. He went into a Thrifty store and stole 11 bottles of shampoo," Neal said.
Her husband, Lamont, she said, is doing 25 years to life for petty theft. "He went in on a charge of possessing a stolen credit card," she said. "He went down to Alvarado and purchased a credit card and ID. He tried to use it to buy a TV."
Carmen Ewell joined after her husband, John, was sent to prison for passing a stolen check. With two previous convictions for second-degree robbery, the 42-year-old cosmetologist pleaded guilty to the stolen check charge when authorities offered him a deal, he said from state prison in Norco. Plead guilty, prosecutors said, and we'll overlook a prior conviction, so this will count as a second, not third, strike. In doing so, Ewell avoided a trial and the possibility of a sentence of 25 years to life. Still, pleading to a second strike meant that his prison term was doubled--to seven years.
"If they were to amend three strikes, I could probably go home next year," said Ewell, whose offense normally carries a 3 1/2-year prison term.
Said his wife: "I think it's an injustice. . . . His attorney told me if my husband had not gotten the priors, he probably would have [faced] a misdemeanor."
Like many of those in the group, Carmen Ewell, an insurance claims analyst, did not know about the group until long after her husband was sent to prison.
"My niece and I were going to church and saw a demonstration. . . . It was like 50 or 60 people. They were around the whole block," she said. "I have been involved ever since."