“I went to death row and really just saw what America says are the worst of the worst, and realized they’re human beings at the heart of these cases that you hear about.”
These are the first words viewers hear from attorney MiAngel Cody at the start of “The Third Strike,” providing an apt opening to a documentary that brings humanity to an otherwise dehumanizing criminal justice system.
Premiering at the 11th annual Athena Film Festival, director Nicole Jones’ documentary “The Third Strike” captures the work of attorney MiAngel Cody and her team at The Decarceration Collective to dismantle an unjust criminal justice system. The documentary reveals her efforts to free those serving unjust life sentences without parole for minor drug offenses due to the three-strikes law.
Focusing primarily on Edward Douglas, the first prisoner to be granted commutation after the passage of the First Step Act, Jones’ documentary introduces viewers to the women-powered law firm working tirelessly to aid those unfairly sentenced to life in prison. This struck an emotional chord with viewers as they see those personally affected by and working to change the system.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand the way that [the] three-strikes law works, and a lot of people don’t understand the way it was intended to work,” Cody said. “So the way it was intended to work is to punish the worst of the worst drug offenders, the repeat recidivists who kept getting in trouble, who’d been to prison, got out, and continue to sell drugs. But what has happened is it hasn’t been implemented that way.”
As a result of this misapplication, men and women have been unjustly delivered life sentences without parole, leading to rising mass incarceration rates and families being torn apart. In 2018, however, this law was challenged for the first time with the passage of the First Step Act. As stated in a news clip included in the documentary, this act works to “change sentencing laws, establish more early release programs, and expand job training meant to reduce recidivism.”
With the passing of the First Step Act came Douglas’ release. Just weeks later, Douglas and Cody were invited by Sen. Cory Booker to the State of The Union address, alongside Jones and her cinematographer. The scene that followed depicted Booker’s meeting with Cody, Douglas, members of The Decarceration Collective, and Jones to celebrate Douglas’ freedom and discuss next steps toward legislation. Friendly conversation quickly ensued between Booker and Douglas as the two men discussed Douglas’ time in prison and the repercussions of the passage of the First Step Act.
“What you represent to me now is more than just a symbol of what the past was, you represent a symbol of what we still have to do,” Booker said. “The way you sort of conducted yourself while you were in there to say, ‘hey look, I still have breath in my body, blood in my veins. I can still try to make a difference in the lives of other people. That’s pretty, that’s really profound.’”
Cody and her team, also aware of the work that still has to be done, have continued the fight against the three-strikes law.
“If we’re really committed to ending mass incarceration, then that has to be a systemic shift in how we prioritize and invest our money into people because, for many of my clients, the first system that ever really paid any focus, attention, to them was the criminal justice system,” Cody said. “It wasn’t the educational system; it wasn’t the mental health system; it wasn’t the health care system, but you get a lot of attention when it’s the United States of America versus Edward Douglas, or you, or I.”
Changing the system requires changing societal perspective, but all change has to start somewhere; at the beginning of the documentary, Cody is that change. Upon hearing of her son’s release, Douglas’ mother told Cody, “Your mama named you the right thing because she knew what you were gonna do. Your name is MiAngel but God sent you to be my angel.”
An angel by her name and by her selfless dedication to her work, Cody and The Decarceration Collective are being given due credit in “The Third Strike.” The documentary sheds light on the hope and humanity that exist within a system weighed down by disproportionate and unjust sentences.