Re-sentenced three-striker Collins sets path for other Prop. 36 hopefuls
With his freedom at stake, three-striker Aaron C. Collins decided to tell the judge an anecdote about brains in jars. But first he cried.
The 46-year-old Collins traveled a long way to this moment, seated before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lawrence G. Brown in the wood-varnished Department 9 courthouse downtown, both literally and figuratively. Shackled and garbed in orange CDC duds, Collins rode a rickety bus all the way up from his current Lancaster penitentiary address and spent a night in solitary confinement in Folsom before his April 17 hearing.
Part of the first wave of three-strikers to be re-sentenced under Proposition 36, Collins was here to explain why he should get “time served” for the crime of possessing weed while in prison 18 years ago. When he tried to tell his story, it all became too much for the gregarious Collins, author of two self-published books and an aspiring radio personality.
“I said I wouldn’t lose it,” he reminded himself.
“Take your time,” Judge Brown offered. “This is a big day.”
And a long time coming.
In September 1995, Collins, a twice-convicted robber who stole to feed his crack habit, got caught with five bindles of marijuana while doing time in California State Prison, Sacramento, in Folsom. This was less than a year after voters—brought to an emotional froth by two high-profile murder cases involving criminals who fell through the cracks—overwhelmingly adopted the state’s harsh three-strikes sentencing law.
The 1993 kidnapping-murder of Polly Class and the fatal robbery of a Fresno State University student a year earlier galvanized a public that was tired of seeing people with serious criminal pasts allowed back on the streets to commit even worse offenses, said assistant chief deputy district attorney Steve Grippi.
“Those were the two sparks that lit the fire, but the fire was smoldering for a long time before,” Grippi said during a citizens academy seminar last week. He noted that such a lax legal environment wouldn’t exist today even without three strikes. But the initiative was already enacted, subsuming a more measured version written by legislators. The new law sentenced individuals to 25-year-to-life for any third felony conviction if their first two were serious. By definition, Collins qualified. It would take another two decades—and Collins’ own personal maturation in prison—for people to realize the unintended consequences of their votes.
Statewide, the sentencing law was applied more aggressively against black and brown drug offenders. Sacramento County’s share of black three-strikers is even higher than the state average.
Last November, voters approved Proposition 36, which modifies three strikes so that people convicted of lesser third felonies aren’t eligible for 25-year-to-life prison terms. It applies retroactively, meaning Collins and thousands more could petition to have their sentences reviewed. The county offices of the DA and public defender are reviewing 160 such cases to see who else qualifies for re-sentencing. Nearly 40 have been granted adjusted sentences.
It was in 1998—four years after the law was passed—that the local District Attorney’s Office realized how much discretion it had and started dismissing lesser strikes, Grippi said. Collins was one of a handful locally to fall into that gap, but that doesn’t mean he was an angel.
“I was a bad-ass inside. I mean, I was screwing up a lot. And I caught extra time just regularly from the administrative level,” the onetime problem inmate told SN&R.
Collins acted out, in part, because he had given hope. He didn’t think this day would ever come. And now he was having trouble telling his anecdote:
An old man walks into an antique shop to buy a 40th anniversary gift for his wife. On the counter are three glass jars containing a brain in each. One is labeled “white brain” and is priced at $10 million because, the shopkeeper explains, it was a white brain the built the first rocket. The second is labeled “Asian brain” and goes for $15 million. It was an Asian brain that created the fuel for the rocket, says the shopkeeper. The third is labeled “black brain” and has a $50 million asking price.
Why is that one so much more expensive, the old man wonders.
“Because this brain hasn’t been used yet,” Collins said, finishing his story. “For years I have allowed my brain not to be used.”
But at some point, at one of the seven penitentiaries he’s been in since 1990, Collins decided to change that. Collins, born to a heroin-addicted mother who died in 1987, kicked his own habit while inside. He also earned a couple of associate’s degrees and became a go-to paralegal for his fellow inmates. Then he wrote two books, one a memoir covering the crack addiction he picked up at age 16, the other a cookbook of sorts.
“What I did was, I have real recipes and I gave them a legal twist,” he said. “Like people would drink a margarita. I just named it ‘misdemeanor margarita.’ Like fruit salad, I gave it the title ‘felony fruit salad.’ ‘Lawyer’s latte,’ ‘premeditated mashed potatoes,’ ‘prosecutor’s pancakes’—I made catchy, creative names to go with the food.”
It was this 180-degree turn, which Collins started well before Prop. 36 was a glimmer in a Stanford reformist’s eye, that convinced Judge Brown to grant him time served for the remainder of his term.
“He is a changed man,” Brown concluded. “I hope you tell your story to any and all that will listen.”
That’s the plan, anyway. When asked what he wants to do with his hard-earned freedom, Collins cleared his throat and uncorked a booming voice he hopes to parlay into a radio-advice show.
“He has big ideals, and those all could happen,” added his attorney, assistant public defender Karen Flynn. “But it’s one step at a time.”
For believing in him, Collins gave the smiling judge a signed copy of his cookbook. Then, still shackled, he got up and marched down the hall for the bus that will take him to an altogether different future.