SEATTLE — Stevan Dozier was 25 when he punched a woman in the face to snatch her purse, part of the cash-for-crack crime wave that plagued big cities during the 1980s.

Over the next eight years, he would be arrested three more times for the same thing. But just before his last conviction, Washington in 1993 became the first state to pass a law requiring criminals with three serious felony convictions to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Half of the states now have similar laws.

Dozier, who never caused a serious injury or used a weapon, disappeared behind bars without a chance for parole — along with more than 290 other Washington inmates convicted under the three-strikes law.

"I went through a period of depression going into Walla Walla State Penitentiary," said Dozier, 47. "I had been to jail before, but I always went in with release dates. Your vision is, 'I just gotta make it to this date.' But then, there was no date."

That was before the district attorney's office that sent him to prison, the conservative talk radio host who pushed Washington's law and the judge who sentenced him all came to agree that despite the public's demand to keep career criminals behind bars, three strikes shouldn't always mean never getting out.

In May, Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, signed Dozier's appeal for clemency, making him the first three-strikes lifer in the nation to be pardoned.

The Pardons and Clemency Board in June recommended freeing Al-Kareem Shadeed, 39, and Michael Bridges, 47, who both had been sentenced to life without parole in the mid-1990s for stealing wallets.

"My sentence is the same as the Green River killer's. . . . And other people who have viciously murdered and raped women and children are getting out of prison while I never will," Shadeed wrote in January.