Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Statue atop California Capitol building in Sacramento
Photo by danyk on Depositphotos

This article was first published by San Quentin News, a newspaper that reports on rehabilitative efforts to increase public safety and achieve social justice from inside San Quentin State Prison. Visit SQN’s website or follow them on Twitter. Aside from the headline, it appears as it was published and has not been edited by PJP.

As California’s Three Strikes law approaches its 30-year anniversary, prisoners sentenced under the 1994 law are gradually being released, but others complain they are still being denied justice. 

James Benson, 67, has served more than 25 years in prison under the Three Strikes law, which proponents said was necessary to crack down on crime. Benson was convicted of burglary and check fraud in Orange County. 

Afterwards, voters passed Propositions 36, 47 and 57 to modify the harsh sentencing practices, but the changes have not helped prisoners like Benson. 

Two decades before the Three Strikes law was in place, a court convicted Benson of murder in 1973, when he was 18. The murder conviction disqualified him from the relief under Proposition 36.

“Based on revisions of the law, from Prop. 36 (passed in 2012) up to today, I wouldn’t receive a Three Strikes sentence,” said Benson. “There was no positive return for public safety under the Three Strikes law.” He has appeared before the Board of Parole Hearings three times. 

Darnell Godfrey’s sentence in Los Angeles in the late 1990s was under the Three Strikes law. He had two prior non-violent strikes (a felon in possession of a firearm, and receiving stolen property). 

“They locked me up forthwith,” said Godfrey. He got no relief from the successive ballot initiatives aimed at reforming the Three Strikes law. When Godfrey appeared before the parole board in 2018, he received a five-year denial. The reasons, he said, were for rules violations: “Out of bounds,” making a telephone, and getting a haircut while sitting on a bucket in his assigned housing unit. 

“They [the Board] skipped over my groups and programs and focused on that stuff,” said Godfrey. 

Wilbert Lee, 53, said he received his third strike in Orange County. He has already served 26 years. 

With the passage of Propositions 36, 47 and 57, Lee said he thought he would receive relief. Like others, he was wrong. 

“My case is based on I had a conspiracy to commit robbery, gang allegations, a gun, and false imprisonment,” said Lee. 

Lee said he hopes to receive a reduction to his sentence under Senate Bill 483 (Allen D-Redondo Beach), which makes one-to-three-year sentence enhancements “legally invalid.” 

Under the bill, the Secretary of the CDCR is required to “identify those persons in their custody who are serving a sentence that includes one of these enhancements and provide this information to the sentencing court, as specified.” 

Before Benson’s third parole hearing, he applied for commutation of his sentence to the governor’s office. He also filed a petition for recall of sentence. “The DA in Orange County is not doing them,” he said. 

Benson was found suitable for release on parole the third time he appeared before the board. 

“If I can be fair about it, my hearing package that I presented to the first and second board was weak, compared to what I put in the third time,” said Benson. “I took heed to the recommendations of the second board.” 

Benson said a deputy district attorney from Orange County told him, “You’re keeping yourself in prison.” He said the DA told him that because he has a non-violent third strike he thinks he doesn’t have to do the work. 

“That was my motivation,” said Benson. After that he completed groups, correspondence coursework through Prep, read and did book reports, and produced a realistic parole plan and relapse prevention plan. 

Early on, Benson appealed his conviction, and filed multiple habeas petitions in state and federal courts. He also worked with the organizations FACTS, Choose 1, and the Three-Strikes Project at Stanford University. 

“I tried to hold my confidence in the justice system,” said Benson, adding, “to maintain hope that the system does work.” 

Godfrey found relief when LA District Attorney George Gascon’s office contacted him. “Dear Mr. Godfrey, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office has identified you as an individual it is considering recommending for resentencing … ,” the letter states. 

Months later, an attorney from the Post Conviction Assistance Center wrote to Godfrey. “I am writing to go over everything that happened at your resentencing,” the letter states. “First, the court recalled your sentence … ” 

Formerly the DA in San Francisco, Gascon later held the same post in Los Angeles. “Gascon pledged to make ‘unprecedented effort to re-evaluate and resentence’ thousands of prison terms,’” the New York Times reported in 2021. “Nearing the one-year mark in office, Gascon has taken some steps in fulfilling the pledges that he made at the outset,” the article said. 

“All they’re doing is righting a wrong.” That’s what Godfrey’s mother told him in a telephone conversation. 

Godfrey’s attorney made arrangements for him to be picked up from San Quentin through the Ride-Home Program. 

“I want to offer you a sincere congratulations on this outcome,” Godfrey’s attorney wrote to him. “I know that this has been a long journey, but you persevered and put in the work, and that has been recognized.” 

“I feel fear, happiness, excitement, blessed and anxiety,” said Godfrey. “Because, I’ve been away from society so long.” He left San Quentin State Prison in 2022. 

Lee is still waiting, and hopeful. He said he has used his time wisely, and surmised that had he remained in society he might be dead. Looking back on his years of incarceration, Lee said, “It forced me to be a better man.” 

“I think the Three-Strikes law is outdated,” said Lee. “It’s keeping people in prison for the lowest of crimes.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Kevin D. Sawyer is a contributing editor for PJP; a member of the Society of Professional Journalists; and a former associate editor and member of the San Quentin News team that won SPJ’s 2014 James Madison Freedom of Information Award. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Post, California Prison Focus and others. He was a 2019 PEN American Honorable Mention in nonfiction and a 2016 recipient of The James Aronson Award for community journalism. Prior to incarceration, Sawyer worked in the telecommunications industry for 14 years.