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

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.

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.”

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card


Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.