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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.

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The Three Strikes regime costs state taxpayers about $50,000 a year per prisoner, or even more when the inmate is mentally ill. That is double what counties pay social workers who manage mental health cases. But an estimated 40 percent of Three Strikes cases were “either mentally retarted or mentally ill,” the profile notes. “Not that the money is the issue, but you could send hundreds of deserving people to college for the amount of money we were spending,” said Stanford’s Romano.

The story of how criminal justice reformers like Romano finally softened the law with the ballot measure passed last fall is equally depressing. Starting in 2000, some top law enforcement officials starting speaking out about the law’s unintended results—such as “a man named Willie Joseph received a life sentence after helping an undercover policeman set up a $5 crack deal.” In 2004, a ballot  measure was put before voters and was winning by a three-to-one margin in that fall’s pre-election polls. However, a last-minute advertising blitz funded by a conservative billionaire and enlisting then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former governers Jerry Brown and Gray Davis—all against it—turned that lead around. That year’s Prop. 66 lost by six percentage points.      

After that, Stanford’s Three Strikes program kept challenging convictions and was freeing prisoners one by one. But it was a trickle. Each case took weeks of a lawyer’s time. That frustration prompted reformers to find money for another ballot measure, 2012’s Prop. 36, which did pass, with many of the get-tough conservatives now saying Three Strikes was a waste of taxpayers’ money. But as Taibbi notes, their electoral victory hasn’t done very much for many non-violent offenders still jailed for life.  

“Prop 36 might have been a great victory, but it didn’t mean that all the unjustly imprisoned were immediately freed. In fact, while 156 inmates have been released, 2,844 non­violent three-strikers remain behind bars. Worse, due to a quirk in the methodology by which California is complying with a federal order to reduce its prison population, there are many murderers and rapists getting out of jail more quickly than three-strikers. The state's method of emptying its overcrowded prisons was to give out lots of 'good time' to prisoners with long sentences – in other words, accelerate a well-behaved prisoner's march to a parole hearing. But three-strikers cannot get ‘good time,’ they only get ‘straight time’ – meaning 25 years is always 25 years. The only way out for them is still through a long, slow court process, one in which the state often fights release.”

And while California may be the first state to  reel in its draconian law—making it apply to violent or serious offenses—judges in other states are still bound by their legislatures' mandatory sentencing laws. The result has been an explosion in the United States prison population, from roughly one million people in 1990 to 2.2 million today.  

“It’s not an accident that so many of the most ridiculous Three Strikes cases are semi-coherent homeless people or people with drug problems who came from broken homes. It wasn’t a cost-efficient way of dealing with these issues—in fact, in California at least, it was an insanely, almost criminally expensive burden on taxpayers—but it was effective enough as a way of keeping the uglier schisms of our society hidden from view.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).

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