A new documentary on the devastating effects that California’s three-strikes law has had on nonviolent offenders for nearly two decades is set to premiere on the heels of the Nov. 6 election, when voters will have a chance to change the state’s strict sentencing rule.
Sam Banning, director and producer of “Cruel and Unusual,” tells the history of the law through the stories of three individuals sentenced to life for theft or forgery.
“One of the things that makes California’s three-strikes law so unique is that the third strike can be a nonserious, nonviolent crime. We’re in a backwards progression here in California,” said the quiet, leather-clad Banning in an interview at Muddy Waters Coffee House on Valencia.
Banning is a Mission resident and advocate of Proposition 36, an initiative that would revise the three-strikes law to focus on violent crime. Four thousand Californians are currently serving life sentences under the law.
Under the 1994 law, felons receive a mandatory 25 years to life in prison for committing a third felony. Although many other states have three-strikes laws, California’s has drawn criticism since its inception for including nonviolent crime as a step toward lifetime incarceration.
If it passes, Prop. 36 would restore the original intent of the three-strikes law by requiring that life sentences be imposed only for serious or violent crimes. Offenders with two strikes who are convicted of a third offense that is minor or nonviolent would receive double the ordinary sentence instead of a life term.
Banning said his film was inspired by Stanford University Law School’s Three Strikes Project, whose website claims the law is “the harshest sentencing law in the United States.”
Banning focuses on the lives of two men and one woman who all received their third strike not long after the law was enacted. All three spent years in prison for committing nonviolent and nonserious felonies: one for forging a check, one for stealing a VCR and one for stealing a slice of pizza. On camera, the three say they have repented, but can’t comprehend receiving a life sentence for such acts. All filed multiple appeals and were finally released.
Banning makes his biases clear: he wants a three-strikes law, but one that is focused on violent criminals. Audiences may find it difficult to sympathize with Banning’s portrayal of proponents of the original law, who say on camera that it is worth catching petty offenders in order to put away violent criminals for life.
Banning plays on the symmetry of spotlighting three victims of the three-strikes law. Each lost about a decade of their life behind bars. The forger reveals that her mother committed suicide while she was incarcerated. Still, Banning said, they are among “the lucky few who have been released and have come forward to talk about it.”
With a crew of only three, the film went into production approximately one year ago and took six months to film. For the last six months, Banning has been hard at work in the post-production phase, editing the film so that it would be ready for the 11th Annual San Francisco Documentary Festival. The film premieres at the Mission’s Roxie Theater on Nov. 11 at 5 p.m., and at Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley on Nov. 12 at 7:15 p.m.
Banning hopes the festival will be a springboard to a wider audience through television.
“We want to get the film broadcast nationally,” he said.