Live from Sacramento’s first Proposition 36 court hearing
Sacramento offender freed under new three-strikes law
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 last week. Shackled and garbed in orange duds, Collins rode a rickety bus all the way from a Lancaster prison and spent a night in solitary confinement before his April 17 hearing.
Part of the first wave of three-strikers to be resentenced 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 Folsom. This was less than a year after voters overwhelmingly adopted the state’s harsh three-strikes law.
The law sentenced individuals to 25 years 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—to realize the unintended consequences of their votes.
Statewide, the sentencing law was applied more aggressively against black- and brown-skinned drug offenders. Sacramento County’s share of black three-strikers is 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-years-to-life. It applies retroactively, meaning Collins and thousands more can petition to have their sentences reviewed. The Sacramento County district attorney and public defender are reviewing 160 such cases to see who else qualifies for resentencing.
Collins is one of almost 40 locally to be deemed worthy, but that doesn’t mean he was always an angel.
“I was a badass inside. I mean, I was screwing up a lot,” the onetime problem inmate told SN&R.
He acted out, in part, because he had given up hope. And now, he was having trouble telling the judge 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 that 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 allowed my brain not to be used,” he said.
Collins decided to change that, becoming a Prop. 36 “poster child” in the process, said Chief Assistant Public Defender Karen Flynn. Born to a heroin-addicted mother who died in 1987, Collins kicked his own habit while on the inside. He also earned a couple associate 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. “’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, 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.”
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 toward an altogether different future.