Three-strikes laws may not mean you’re out

Stevan Dozier was 25 when he punched a woman in the face to snatch her purse, another episode in the cash-for-crack crime wave that plagued America’s big cities during the 1980s.

Over the next eight years, he would be arrested three more times for the same thing. But just before his last conviction, Washington in 1993 became the first state to pass a law requiring criminals with three serious felony convictions to spend the rest of their lives in prison. California followed suit the next year, and 24 other states now have similar laws.

Dozier, who never caused a serious injury or used a weapon, disappeared behind bars without the possibility of parole -- along with more than 290 other Washington inmates convicted under the state’s tough three-strikes law.

“I went through a period of depression going into Walla Walla State Penitentiary,” said Dozier, 47.

“I had been to jail before, but I always went in with release dates. Your vision is, ‘I just gotta make it to this date.’ But then, there was no date.”


That was before the district attorney’s office that sent him to prison, the conservative talk radio host who coauthored Washington’s law, and the judge who sentenced him all came to agree that despite the public’s demand to keep career criminals behind bars, three strikes shouldn’t always mean never getting out.

In May, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed Dozier’s appeal for clemency, making him the first three-strikes lifer in the nation to be pardoned.

The state’s Pardons and Clemency Board in June recommended freeing Al-Kareem Shadeed, 39, and Michael Bridges, 47, who both had been sentenced to life without parole in the mid-1990s for stealing wallets.

“My sentence is the same as the Green River killer’s. . . . And other people who have viciously murdered and raped women and children are getting out of prison while I never will,” Shadeed wrote in January on the liberal Washblog.

Fifteen years after voters and legislatures across the country began embracing the three-strikes concept, many states apply those laws more sparingly. Prosecutors and judges often use the discretion provided them to avoid charging a defendant whose past consists of minor robberies or assault convictions with a third-strike offense.

Now Washington is taking the extra step of reviewing the cases of some nonviolent three-strikes prisoners and moving to release those, like Dozier, who probably would not face such a severe punishment today.

“We’re talking about the kinds of offenses that if you were to poll the average person, they’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s bad, but is it deserving of mandatory life in prison without parole?’ ” said Jennifer Walsh, a political science professor at Azusa Pacific University who has studied three-strikes laws across the country.

“I think that’s where you start to get some deviance from what was thought of as being appropriate during the height of the crime wave, which was 1992-93 for most states, and today with our historic low crime rates.”

In California, where the law is less harsh than in Washington, two-strikers get a doubled penalty, and three-strikers face 25 years to life, with parole. More than 40,800 of the state’s 170,000 inmates are behind bars under second- or third-strike provisions, with more than 8,400 of them sentenced to the full 25 years to life.

In part because of a 1996 California Supreme Court decision that gave judges leeway to dismiss seemingly unfair third-strike convictions, the penalty increasingly has been applied to serious, violent offenders.

The same is true in Washington state. About 100 defendants who had committed no serious violent offense were sentenced to life without parole from 1994 to 1999, but that number slipped to 39 from 2000 to 2007.

“We have exercised more discretion as we’ve had more experience with the law,” said Daniel T. Satterberg, King County’s prosecuting attorney, who said he plans to bring a series of clemency petitions to the governor over the next several months.

“These were not sophisticated, highly planned robberies, nor did they cause extraordinary harm to anybody. They were street robberies and, 15 years later, I think it is appropriate to review whether their continued detention is warranted.”

Washington was reeling from a series of horrific crimes committed by repeat offenders when voters passed the three-strikes initiative. Its early proponents included Helen Harlow of Tacoma -- whose 7-year-old son had been raped, choked and sexually mutilated in 1989 by a man who had been assaulting children for 24 years -- and Ida Ballasiotes, whose daughter was abducted and murdered in 1988 while walking from her office to her car in downtown Seattle by a man who had been jailed twice for sexual assaults.

By contrast, Dozier, who worked as a welder and stock clerk after high school, was mainly grabbing women’s purses to support his crack cocaine habit.

But finding himself in state prison with no prospect of leaving, he said, marked the beginning of his next life.

“Pain will make a strong man grow. Loss will make you reflect,” he said last month, taking a break in an upscale Seattle coffee shop from his new job: helping at-risk youths for the Sea of Stars Foundation.

“I picked myself off the ground and I started looking at myself. What had led me down this road? Drugs were a big contributing factor. Drugs and laziness. So I said, ‘I’m not going to do drugs no more,’ ” he said.

Dozier, whose wife divorced him after his three-strikes conviction, joined two drug recovery programs in prison, got a job and started paying restitution to his victims because it seemed like the right thing to do, he said. He joined Christian fellowship groups and, in 2000, decided to call his ex-wife, Lillian. He talked her into flying over to Walla Walla “just to talk.”

Gradually, Lillian Dozier told authorities, she became convinced her former husband really had changed. “He said, ‘There is nothing you can say to me that I haven’t already said to myself,’ ” she recalled in a letter to the clemency board.

“One day, all of a sudden, the anger was quiet. The hurt had subsided. . . . I finally came to the realization that I was looking at a grown-up, mature person,” she said.

Stevan Dozier eventually was transferred to a lower-security facility nearer Seattle, and the couple remarried.

“During the clemency hearing, one of the board members said that was maybe the best indication. She said this was somebody who had lived through the changes in Stevan Dozier and, if she’s willing to remarry him, [the board member] was willing to vote for Mr. Dozier’s release,” his lawyer, Jeff Ellis, said.

“What was so remarkable about the changes he underwent in prison was that they really were without any expectation of being released,” Ellis said. “It was more a matter of, ‘I just have to do this for myself.’ ”

Throughout most of his years in prison, Dozier saw himself as an example to other young men of what not to do. He missed no opportunity to tell them so, and he’s hoping he’ll be able to continue that work now with the nonprofit organization.

“I always tried to pull others along. I’d tell them, ‘This could be your last time in prison, you’re getting out of here, you’ve got the world in front of you. Take the courses they’re offering you. Get your GED,” he said.

“Some would accept it. They’d go to school, they’d get jobs instead of laying around in the [prison] yard. They’d get out, and I’d get letters back. They’d say, ‘I’m going to send you some money.’ I’d say, ‘No, you send me a picture of you doing good.’ And I got a photo album of pictures.”

Defense attorneys in Washington say that the clemency process -- the only route to freedom for the state’s three-strikes inmates -- is cumbersome and expensive. The state does not provide public defenders for clemency petitioners.

And defendants in some Washington counties still face life prison terms for strings of relatively minor crimes, said Christie Hedman, director of the Washington Defender Assn.

Even those prosecutors who are willing to plea bargain to avoid a three-strikes conviction use the threat of life behind bars to extract a longer sentence than what otherwise might be imposed, Hedman said.

“They say, ‘Well, we won’t charge it, but we’ll use it as a negotiating tool.’ ”

Dozier said he has no criticism of the authorities who sent him to prison -- he figures he deserved it and, besides, what’s the point of being mad?

At anybody.

“I try not to have arguments with my wife. No. I do the dishes. I take the trash out. I open the door when she gets in the car. I take pride when I do things like that, because my wife waited on me. She sacrificed for me,” he said.

“Sure, we’re going to argue,” he said. “But I learned a new way to fight. I say, ‘We’re going to agree to disagree.’ Because I don’t have time for fighting. I fought for my freedom. I fought for my freedom. I have no animosity left.”