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In California, since the November election, 240 prisoners facing potential life sentences have been set free. That's because voters changed the state's tough, three-strikes sentencing law. As we reported back in 2009, the law sent thousands of people to prison for terms of 25 years to life for minor, non-violent crimes. Now, those prisoners can ask the court to have their sentences reduced.
Shane Reams is one of the people set free under the new law. NPR's Ina Jaffe brings us his story and the story of his mother, who campaigned to change the law and free her son.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Early in the morning, the day before Easter, Sue Reams and her husband picked up her son, Shane, outside of Ironwood State Prison, way out in the California desert.
SUE REAMS: And I just caught him and sobbed.
SUE REAMS: And I probably didn't let him go for about 10 minutes, maybe.
SHANE REAMS: She choked the air out of me.
SHANE REAMS: She choked the air out of me. It was an amazing feeling. It felt like we had won. I just kept saying, like, we won. We won.
SUE REAMS: Yeah.
JAFFE: Before that moment, Shane Reams had served about 17 years of his potential life sentence. He got his third strike for being involved in the sale of a $20 rock of cocaine. He says he was a bystander; the prosecution said he was a lookout. But it was Shane Reams' first two strikes that caused his mother such heartache, as she told us when we interviewed her in 2009. She'd been trying to get him off drugs. Nothing seemed to work, so Sue Reams tried tough love.
SUE REAMS: Tough love tells you that you take a stand, so I took a stand.
JAFFE: Which meant that when her son stole some stuff from her house, and from the neighbors, to get money for drugs, she insisted he turn himself in. She even drove him to the police station. She told him...
SUE REAMS: Maybe you'll get a drug program. You need a drug program.
JAFFE: Instead, he got convicted of two counts of residential burglary. A few years later, when he got picked up on the drug charge, those burglaries counted as his first two strikes. As Sue Reams said in 2009, she felt partly responsible for her son's life sentence.
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SUE REAMS: I'm angry with myself. I feel terribly guilty. I guess that's why I've worked so long to try and change the law.
JAFFE: She worked with an organization called Families to Amend California's Three Strikes. She told her story to anyone who wanted an interview. She campaigned for a 2004 ballot measure to reform the law. It failed. She kept going. Meanwhile, Shane Reams was not helping the cause - at least, not for his first few years behind bars.
SHANE REAMS: I was in a prison gang. I was involved in a lot of nonsense that was taking place within the prison.
SUE REAMS: I mean, when he first went in, he kind of gave up. That life sentence loomed in front of him, and I guess he kind of gave up. But he knew that I wasn't going to give up on him.
SHANE REAMS: And over time, it started to appeal to me that if my mom's out here, and she sacrificed everything for this cause; and I would be actually fighting against her if I didn't change, if I didn't do everything possible to get out.
JAFFE: So he did. He went to just about any group the prison offered - Gangs Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, a support group for lifers. And he took college courses; mostly sociology and psychology.
SHANE REAMS: And those courses made me look within, and see why I did the things that I did.
JAFFE: Last month, when Shane Reams' case was brought back to court, he was sentenced to eight years for that drug charge, less than half of what he'd already served. Now, at the age of 44, he's beginning a whole new life. Last Friday, he moved to Memphis. It's where his fiancee lives. They had a son together before he went in. Now, they plan to get married.
But Sue Reams says her life won't change that much. She believes that the reform of the three-strikes law didn't go far enough. She's not giving up the campaign.
SUE REAMS: For me, this has become a way of life. People are in there for stealing baby food; for, you know, for stupid things. And they don't deserve a life sentence for that.
JAFFE: Sue Reams began her efforts to reform the three-strikes law to free her son, but she says all of the people engaged in this cause are her family now.
Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
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