SAN JOSE, Calif. — After being locked behind bars for nearly 19 years of what he thought would be the rest of his life, Stephen Williams suddenly was set free this past winter, dressed in flimsy coveralls over boxer shorts and a white T-shirt. In those first moments on the outside, his abject discomfort and appearance were so startling, strangers took pictures of him as they might a terrified animal released into the wild.
The initial shock is long past, but Williams and more than 1,000 other early-release “three-strikers” still have a formidable challenge ahead: re-establishing themselves in a world they didn’t expect to re-enter, often without much support. Such is the fallout of a three-strikes reform measure, Proposition 36, backed by more than two-thirds of California’s electorate this past fall in a startling 180-degree switch on crime.
Turning away from nearly two decades of locking up repeat offenders for life over minor offenses, voters instead embraced a process of setting many of them free. Another 2,000 inmates are eligible for release in coming months.
However, many of the newly released find themselves lost. Some have likened it to stepping out of a time machine with just the shirt on their backs.
That’s mostly because the system that released them has not figured ways to help with basics — housing, drug treatment and employment — that will support success. These former third-strikers have been locked up an average of nine years, are nearing 50 years of age and are prone to physical and mental illnesses. Yet they don’t receive the same assistance afforded parolees and probationers who have been behind bars for shorter periods.
Many activists are clamoring for the state and counties to invest in support programs because incarceration costs are much steeper; some, such as Santa Clara County, are heeding the call. The effort comes as a federal three-judge panel is urging California to consider setting thousands more three-strikers free to reduce prison overcrowding.