This Monday, Brenda Ross was released from California’s women’s prison in Chowchilla, where 13 years ago she’d been sentenced to spend the rest of her life behind bars by Santa Barbara Judge Brian Hill for trying to stab a pregnant homeless woman in the belly with a knife. Last week, Judge Hill was persuaded that Ross — a three-striker and career criminal for 36 years — had genuinely turned her life around, pursuing a host of rehabilitation classes while incarcerated and becoming a mentor to hundreds of other women serving time.
It was the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation itself that nominated Ross for release as a “meritorious conduct case” as part of a new wrinkle on an old law signed last year by former governor Jerry Brown. Testifying on Ross’s behalf in Hill’s courtroom last week was the former director of adult institutions for that department as well as representatives with Stanford University’s Three Strikes Project and a defense attorney with the Public Defender’s Office.
The only skeptic in the courtroom was prosecuting attorney Kimberly Siegel, who successfully prosecuted Ross in 2008. Siegel submitted a lengthy court brief vigorously arguing that Ross — even at the age of 63 — still poses a serious risk to public safety. According to documents submitted by Siegel, Ross began her criminal career at age 14 and didn’t stop until age 51, when she was arrested for beating and stomping a woman with whom she shared a homeless camp. After the victim told Ross she was pregnant, Ross tried to stab the woman in the gut. Ross was arrested the same day and tried — unsuccessfully — to smuggle the knife, hid in her underwear, into county jail. There she would encounter her victim, who had since been arrested herself. Ross repeatedly asked her victim not to testify against her — a crime in itself — and threatened to label her “a rat” if she didn’t agree.
Siegel applauded Ross for pursuing remedial classes but said such classes don’t excuse a lifetime of violent crime. She quoted from a Probation Department report that said Ross had spent “35 years committing the same crime,” adding, “She is a thief who steals from men as a prostitute; and she takes from women using threats of violence. If they protest, there is a fight.” Judge Hill sentenced Ross to 30 years to life based on the state’s Three Strikes law, which won voter approval in the 1990s with the pledge to lock up “the worst of the worst.” At that time, Siegel noted, Ross had more than three strikes against her. But according to Susan Champion, codirector of Stanford’s Three Strikes Project, the issue isn’t what Ross did to get her in prison, but what she’s done since being there.
According to Champion, Ross enrolled for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous treatment. She took anger-management classes and signed up for life scripting, spiritual studies, and Bible studies. She emerged as a mentor. Ross, Champion stressed, sought out remedial classes in the early years of her sentence, at a time when prison officials were reluctant, she said, to waste such attention on someone who would never get out. Ross was one of only 43 inmates nominated by the Department of Corrections to be considered for early release, and the only one from Santa Barbara County. Currently, 130,000 inmates are locked up in California facilities.
Ross had been vetted by six administrative levels of corrections staff — from front-line personnel to the director of the department. Not only did they find that Ross did not pose a risk to the public, Champion said, they concluded she would be a positive asset to the community. They found that Ross had become, in Champion’s words, “the best of the best.” Ross was released to a women’s shelter — A New Way of Living — in Los Angeles and will remain on probation.