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  • Writer's pictureLoren King

“The Third Strike” is a powerful look at injustice and those fighting it

“Who is the human being at the heart of each one of these cases?” That the poignant and pointed question asked by MiAngel Cody, a federal lawyer, constitutional law expert and cofounder of The Decarceration Project in Nicole Jones’s powerful documentary “The Third Strike.” The film details, in sobering terms, the human cost of the “three strikes” law that, for decades, has meant mandatory life sentences often for low level drug offenses.

Jones’s film is set in and around Chicago. Through interviews with experts in criminal justice; lawyers; advocates; and the families of men serving life or very long sentences in federal prison for drug offenses, we get gut-wrenching evidence of the illogic and injustice of the law. One expert explains that the three strikes law “has not reduced drug use or drug trafficking. It warehouses people who are disproportionally African American and poor."

Cody eloquently explains that the law was originally intended to punish “the worst of the worst” of repeat, dangerous drug offenders. “It has not been implemented that way,” she says. The film offers examples of numerous cases of young men, some just teenagers; some drug addicts, who in the past had been convicted of marijuana and cocaine possession and completed probation. But a third drug offense got them a mandatory life sentence without parole. He will die in prison, says Cody, yet there are murderers and kidnappers who don’t get life sentences. Not only is this illogical, Cody argues, it is “contrary to the idea of public safety.”

But not if Cody and other dedicated advocates profiled in the film can help it. In this story of injustice and political posturing at the expense of people’s lives, there are some signs of humanity and hope. The work of Cody and others at The Decarceration Project helped to get Edward Douglas, who had two minor drug offenses dating back to 1988 before being handed a life sentence for his “third strike,” released from federal prison after serving two decades.

Like Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th” (2016), “The Third Strike” is an enlightening expose of a discriminatory law that has resulted in the mass incarceration of African American men and destroyed countless lives. But “The Third Strike” embraces hope as it portrays those on the frontlines battling to change the system and celebrates their successes.

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