Earlonne Woods, co-creator, co-host and co-producer of the hit podcast Ear Hustle, began fighting California’s three-strikes law from behind the metal door of a prison cell while serving a 30-to-life sentence for attempted robbery.
“In Centinela [a state correctional facility] around 2005, I came up with the idea for an organization called CHOOSE1: Could Hip-Hop Overthrow Oppressive Sentence Enactments. … The ‘1’ stood for the power of one individual to effect change,” Woods said. “… My mission was to get individuals from the West Coast hip-hop industry involved, to help pull together the necessary funds to get my initiative on the ballot. I never lost sight of the fact that I was in prison, but I also wasn’t going to let that deter me.”
Woods studied election codes in the prison law library and familiarized himself with the process for changing a law in California through voters. He learned that anyone could file an initiative and that if it received enough signatures, it would be on the ballot for Californians to decide on.
“I resolved to do just that — the hardest part about it was going to be getting it done from prison,” Woods wrote in his book This Is Ear Hustle.
In 2015, after being transferred to San Quentin State Prison, Woods made his move. Through Julie Piccolotti, a friend from the outside, he filed an initiative co-drafted with two other incarcerated people, Gino Atkins and James Benson, that sought to amend the three-strikes law. The Three-Strikes Rehabilitation Law of 2016 proposed to stop counting felonies committed prior to 1994 as strikes. However, the hip-hop community did not answer Woods’ call. He was unable to raise enough money for marketing or to hire gatherers for getting the required hundreds of thousands of signatures.
Since then, Woods has become co-host and co-producer of Ear Hustle, a 2020 Pulitzer Prize finalist and duPont Award–winning podcast with over 54 million downloads. Former California Gov. Jerry Brown commuted his sentence in November 2018.
Now off parole, Woods filed a new initiative along with the Repeal California Three-Strikes Coalition. The Left Behind Act of 2022 seeks to give voters the option of completely abolishing the three-strikes law.
Woods said he has raised over $400,000 and has hired two formerly incarcerated men to fight the law that also sent them to prison for life for non-homicide offenses. John “Yahya” Johnson was sentenced to 30-to-life for a bank robbery without a weapon. Fannon Figgers received a sentence of 210 years for robbing a McDonald’s. His sentence was commuted by Gov. Gavin Newsom, but many others remain in prison. One incarcerated person at San Quentin is serving 299 years for bank robbery.
Californians have voted to amend the parts of the three-strikes law that allowed courts to sentence people to life in prison for stealing a pizza. However, harsh aspects of the law remain.
For instance, there is no statute of limitations on how old a prior conviction can be to qualify as a strike. Plea-deal convictions enacted before the deal went into effect count, even if committed at a juvenile age and adjudicated without a trial. People who have committed two separate crimes as juveniles are disqualified from changes in juvenile justice laws enacted through legislation because the three-strikes law was voted in by the public and can’t be overruled except by voters or two-thirds of the State Assembly and Senate.
“I believe in the law and that I deserve to be punished, but the three-strikes law prevents me from having an opportunity to show my rehabilitation,” said Gregory Eskridge, head facilitator and lead host of the Uncuffed podcast at San Quentin.
Eskridge is serving a sentence of 65 years plus two life sentences under the three-strikes law for second-degree murder and a prior burglary term that was counted as a strike and used to double his sentence. He committed both crimes as a troubled, homeless young man before he was 21.
The Supreme Court acknowledged in a 2012 decision that because the human brain is not fully developed until the age of 25, juveniles can’t be sentenced to life with possibility of parole unless age-related factors are considered. As a result of that decision, California parole boards began considering youth as a mitigating factor when considering cases. But having a prior strike excludes Eskridge, who has been incarcerated for 28 years, from that consideration.
“Initially, I thought I qualified until I discovered the three-strikes law excluded me,” Eskridge said. “It was devastating.”
Additionally, a prior conviction for a violent or serious felony doubles the punishment for a new offense even if the offense isn’t considered serious or violent.
About a quarter of people incarcerated for second-strike cases are in for misdemeanors treated as felonies, according to a December 2021 report by a committee assembled by Gov. Gavin Newsom. “I think there are a great number of injustices,” said Romano about the Three Strikes Law, according to the Los Angeles Times article. In addition, judges disproportionately use the three-strikes law against people of color. About 80% of the approximately 33,000 people serving three-strikes sentences are people of color. While Black people make up 6% of Californians, they make up 45% of those with three-strikes sentences.
Over 7,400 people with three-strikes sentences have current convictions that are neither serious nor violent, according to the commission’s report.
“Eliminating or substantially limiting the use of the Three-Strikes law would recognize the law’s failure to make California safer and would be a significant step towards reducing racial disparities in our criminal legal system,” wrote Michael Romano, chairperson of the California Committee on the Revision of the Penal Code, in the 2021 report. “For those reasons, any changes to the law should be applied retroactively, as California has done for many of its most significant sentence reforms.”
However, members of the penal code committee said in the report that they believe completely abolishing the three-strikes law will be too difficult because it would require approval from two-thirds of the state legislators or a successful voter initiative. The initiative requires about 650,000 signatures to make the ballot and approval from at least 51% of California voters to pass.
Others say the initiative should wait until 2024 instead of being on the ballot for this year’s governor’s race. Woods disagrees with that approach. “I understand that there are some people who think that 2024 is the right time to launch a three-strikes campaign, but there is no evidence to support this,” Woods said. “We don’t believe that waiting until 2024 will change anything.”
Woods, who served 25 years for attempted robbery before a commutation saved him, said he feels that many people have already been in prison far too long for their crimes to wait another day.
“What we have consistently experienced is three-strikes being put on the shelf every time something else comes up as if it’s someone’s pet project, but in reality, these are people’s lives,” Woods said. “I feel like I’m anointed to do this.”
A 2019 study conducted by David Binder Research found that 57% of California voters surveyed would be likely to vote in favor of repealing the three-strikes law.
“When you are fighting against an unjust law, the time to fight is always now,” Eskridge said. “Asking us to wait until 2024 is like asking a slave when does he want to be free — now or in three more years?”
A repeal of the three-strikes law could be a godsend for schools set for closure in California. The initiative calls for redirecting the billions that would be saved by repealing the law to the education system. The Unified School District of Oakland and other districts have already started closing schools due to budget cuts and declining enrollment.
“State prison savings could eventually exceed $1B annually,” according to a fiscal impact report prepared by state legislative analysts.
The split on when to raise the initiative has affected funding, so Woods is relying on a grassroots movement to overcome the first hurdle – over 650,000 qualifying signatures, or 1 million signatures to be on the safe side.
Woods is relying on the people of California.
“If we were thinking about raising funds the traditional way, we’d be out of time,” Woods said. “But we’re tapping into the power of the people united. Anybody want to get involved, get at me.”
“I don’t think we’ll have enough signatures by April 30, but if we reach our goal of 1 million by June 28, the initiative will make the 2024 ballot,” said Woods.
People can donate at www.choose1.org and sign up to volunteer.
Rahsaan “New York” Thomas is a co-producer and co-host of Ear Hustle and is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison in California.
Correction: An earlier version of this article included a quotation that was misattributed to Zakiya Prince, executive director of Repeal, Reunite, Reinvest CA. The quotation has been removed.