Bringing Hope to Individuals Serving Harsh Sentences for Non-Violent Crimes

Should every person convicted of three felonies get the maximum possible sentence without possibility of parole even if his or her offenses were nonviolent? That’s the law in Mississippi, where, under the state’s “Three Strikes Law,” a person convicted of a third felony can be sentenced to decades in prison, regardless of the severity of his or her crimes.

MoFo litigation department associate Janelle Hyun, who works out of the firm’s Tokyo office, has had the opportunity to speak with the families and friends of several people serving unduly harsh sentences under the Three Strikes Law. One situation in particular stands out in her mind.

“This individual, who was convicted of multiple drug offenses, had been a loving and a diligent man before sustaining severe burn injuries at work, which led to prolonged opioid treatments, which in turn resulted in his drug addiction,” Janelle said. “His fiancée was able to provide us with a Letter of Support detailing this downward spiral. Being able to personalize his situation, made a significant difference in the petition we prepared.”

Janelle helped to complete the petition she references as part of her pro bono work for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Since January 2020, MoFo’s Tokyo office has been assisting the SPLC in seeking parole eligibility for people incarcerated in Mississippi as part of SPLC’s Three Strikes Project.

“The Three Strikes Project emerged from SPLC’s criminal justice reform work, which culminated with the passage of Mississippi House Bill 585 in 2014,” Jade Morgan, SPLC staff attorney for the Three Strikes Project, explains. “Under the bill, someone who was sentenced to a mandatory maximum, parole-ineligible sentence under the ‘Three Strikes Law’ and has served at least 25 percent of his or her sentence may petition the sentencing court for parole eligibility. Through the Three Strikes Project, we are working to reunite families that have been torn apart by Mississippi’s unduly harsh criminal justice system.”

Since the Tokyo office first became involved in SPLC’s Three Strikes Project, the office has worked on at least 40 petitions, and MoFo’s Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, and San Francisco offices have gotten on board. Many of the firm’s summer associates also worked on petitions.

The sentencing judges have discretion in determining whether a petitioner will get a parole hearing.  In addition to showing that an individual has served 25% of his or her sentence, the petitions also describe rehabilitation efforts, including degrees or certificates earned while incarcerated.  The petitions also contain letters of support from family members and friends who will support petitioners if released.

These letters of support are often facilitated by interviews that the MoFo volunteers conduct with the petitioners’ loved ones.

“Being able to talk to the friends and family is really helpful because it allows us to understand the petitioner’s history, character, and interests, and to use that information to humanize the petitions” said Keiko Rose, a litigation associate in the Tokyo office, who serves as the project manager on this pro bono work for SPLC.

“Mississippi has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. The pandemic is exacerbating prison-overcrowding there and highlighting the need for these petitions,” Keiko said. “And so the Southern Poverty Law Center is trying to file a petition for every eligible person incarcerated in Mississippi. We’re assisting SPLC in that effort.”

Learn more about how MoFo is responding to racial and criminal injustice.