IN 1995, a year after Californians voted for a "three strikes and you're out" law that guaranteed much tougher sentences for criminals who reoffend, Curtis Wilkerson stole a pair of socks that cost $2.50. This is usually counted as a misdemeanour, but a prosecutor in Los Angeles got it classed as a felony. Since Mr Wilkerson had already been convicted of abetting two robberies in 1981, when he was 19, his petty theft was counted as the third strike. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Getting Mr Wilkerson and others like him out of prison is now the mission of a group of students at Stanford Law School. Under the supervision of two teachers, Michael Romano and Galit Lipa, they try to bring the most egregious injustices of California's three-strikes law before judges. About 1,000 "strikers" have written to them from prison, and about 20 are active cases. Three have been released so far.
The story of this law, the largest and toughest of its kind in the country, is a sad tale for its supporters and enemies alike. It came about after two horrendous murders of girls by people who had committed previous crimes. The killing of Polly Klaas, who was kidnapped from her home at the age of 12, shocked the state and the country. In 1994, 72% of California's voters approved the new law.
It says that criminals convicted for a second time must serve double the normal sentence, and that those with three strikes must get 25 years to life. What makes California's law so controversial is that, whereas the previous felony has to be "serious or violent", the latest crime need not be.
Hence cases such as Mr Wilkerson's. Some 25% of the 170,000 people in California's overcrowded prisons are second- or third-"strikers". And although 43% of them committed violent crimes, the rest are in for petty theft, drugs or other lesser crimes. Among Stanford's clients, one stole a dollar in loose change; another swiped some tools from a parked truck.[...]