Stanford Law School students and faculty celebrated on election night, after years of hard work paid off when California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 36, which reforms the state’s tough “three strikes” sentencing law. 

The law school’s Three Strikes Project worked with the New York-based NAACP Legal Defense Fund to draft and promote the legislation, which won widespread support among California law enforcement and civil rights advocates.

“It was a great celebration,” clinic director Michael Romano said of an election-night party for students and Proposition 36 supporters at the home of Stanford professor David Mills. “The voters showed that they want a rational and fair justice system. It’s not just the right thing to do—it’s good politics.”

Legislators in other states have backed off once-popular three-strikes sentencing laws, but Proposition 36 represents the first time that voters have approved more lenient sentencing for offenders already serving prison time. With the change, offenders who commit nonviolent crimes as their third offense will no longer receive life sentences. Instead, only those convicted of a new “serious or violent” felony are subject to life in prison, as are those with previous convictions for murder, rape or child molestation who commit a new minor felony.

Proposition 36 is retroactive, meaning offenders serving life sentences for non-violent third convictions may request new sentencing hearings.

Stanford founded the Three Strikes Project six years ago, with students representing defendants facing life in prison for minor crimes including breaking into a soup kitchen for food or stealing socks, Romano said.

Eighteen months ago, the clinic was approached by the “unusual coalition” of Los County’s Republican District Attorney Steve Cooley and the Legal Defense Fund, Romano said. They wanted the clinic to develop a legislative fix to the existing three-strikes law, which was sending a disproportionate number of African-Americans to prison for life and costing taxpayers more than $70 million annually. Voters had approved the law in 1994.

The Stanford students carefully weighed who should be exempt from the reform and whether any change should be retroactive, Romano said. Once drafted, the students traveled the state to campaign for the proposition.

“I couldn’t be prouder of them,” Romano said of the approximately 100 students who have participated in the clinic since its inception. “They were the heart and soul of this, and they did the lion’s share of the work.”

Now that the proposition has passed, the clinic will turn its focus to ensuring that the reforms are implemented fairly. “It’s incredibly inspiring to see students who came to law school to make a difference see that come to fruition,” Romano said.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com.