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Hot 20 2010: Michael Romano, Founder of Stanford Law School's Criminal Defense Clinic

Photography by John Lee

Michael Romano, 38
Founder, Stanford Law School Criminal Defense Clinic

Criminal-defense attorney Michael Romano drinks a lot of coffee. Four Barrel fuels his commute from SF to Stanford, where he works with law students in appealing some of California’s three-strikes life sentences. In two years, the clinic’s helped release 14 of the 4,000 inmates serving what Romano sees as extreme punishment unsuited for nonviolent crimes. He says, “A life sentence for simple drug possession or stealing a $2 pair of socks is morally unconscionable. It was not what the voters had in mind when they voted for the three-strikes initiative in 1994. It’s a waste of money and does nothing to improve public safety.”

Another dose of caffeine propels him through lunch, where he meets with one of the lifers his team helped get out of Folsom State Prison. “It makes my day to see how well they’re doing,” says Romano, who hopes to see a complete three-strikes policy reform in the next few years. “They’re working, paying rent, and putting their lives together.” Once he’s back in the city, he fills up at Blue Bottle before heading into his SF practice, where he represents people on death row and works on civil-rights cases.

Having been schooled on both coasts—he earned a law degree from Stanford and a fellowship at Yale—the New York native ultimately decided to make SF home. “There’s something special about this city,” he says. “It draws people who are not only empathetic but interested in creative solutions to difficult problems.”