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Taibbi: Politicians and Law Enforcement Have Trapped Too Many People in Jail for Life with Extreme Three Strikes Laws

A parade of politicians and law enforcement officials has created a Pandora’s box that’s trapped countless low-income offenders.

California’s colossal calamity known as the Three Strikes sentencing law was made less  strident by voters last fall. But according to a  profile by Matt Taibbi in  Rolling Stone, the wreckage from 16 years of putting people away for life continues to extract an absurd toll in which thousands of petty criminals and mentally ill people are jailed for no good reason.  

California passed its law after the brutal kidnapping and murder of a 12-year-old  girl in a small northern California town in 1993. But as Taibbi chronicles, a parade of Democratic and Republican politicians, law enforcement officials and get-tough-on-crime activists has created a Pandora’s box that’s trapped more low-rent offenders than anyone else, ruining lives and costing taxpayers multiple millions.

The law imposing life for anyone convicted of a third felony took effect on March 8, 1994. Nine hours later it found its first victim, Taibbi notes, “a homeless schizophrenic named Lester Wallace, with two nonviolent burglaries on his sheet, who attempted to steal a car radio near the University of Southern California campus.”

“Wallace was such an incompetent thief that he was still sitting in the passenger seat of the car by the time police arrived. He went to court and got 25 years to life. In prison, Wallace immediately became a target. He was sexually and physically attacked numerous times – there’s an incident in his file involving an inmate who told him, ‘Motherfucker, I'll kill you if you don't let me go up in you.’ He was switched to protective custody, and over the years he has suffered from seizures and developed severe back problems (forcing him to walk with a cane) and end-stage renal disease (leading to dialysis treatments three times a week). And even months after California voters chose to reform the law, the state still won’t agree to release him. ‘He's a guy who’s literally dying,’ says Michael Romano, director of Stanford’s Three Strikes program and a key figure in the effort to reform the law, ‘and he’s still inside.’”

The law was intended to stop the most violent crimes. But it mostly ensnared the low-hanging fruit in the world of crime—people whose stupid decisions and dumb behavior typically fill the day-in-court logs of local newspapers. As Taibbi notes, the California law, which prompted two dozen states to adopt similair statutes, was challenged as unconstitutional “cruel and unusual punishment.” But nobody in the highest echelons of the American justice system wanted to draw a line and be seen as "weak" on crime. 

“Lester Wallace became the schizophrenic-on-dialysis-who- stole-a-car-radio­ case, not to be confused with Gary Ewing, the blind-in-one-eye AIDS patient, who died in prison last summer while serving 25 to life for the limping-out-of-a-sporting-­ goods-store-with-three-golf-clubs-stuffed-down-his-pant-leg case. In that one, the Supreme Court decided life for shoplifting wasn’t cruel and unusual punishment, with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor defending the sentence as a ‘rational judgment, entitled to deference.’ She added, with a straight face, that the Supreme Court does ‘not sit as a ‘superlegislature’ to second-guess’ the states.”

The law was not just a policy failure, but a political embarrassment for all involved. But as Taibbi notes, the political system is almost incapable of admitting it has made a mistake—especially when entire political careers are build on being tough on crime. In California, overcrowding in the state’s prisons got so bad that the U.S. Supreme Court (the same one that upheld Three Strikes) ordered the state in 2011 to cut its inmate population by one-fifth. Prison cells differed little from the cages for suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. “It was an ‘uncontested fact’ that a prisoner in California died once every six or seven days due to ‘constitutional deficiencies,’” Taibbi writes.

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