California's "Three Strikes" Law Continues to Snare Mainly Drug and Nonviolent Offenders 2/16/01

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If, as recent figures indicate, California's record-breaking prison population is leveling-off, it isn't because of the state's harsh "Three Strikes" law. Under that law, which took effect in March, 1994, anyone convicted of a felony who had previously been convicted of a "violent" or "serious" felony (which includes most drug charges as well as burglary of an unoccupied dwelling) is subject to enhanced punishment. Persons with one previous conviction are sentenced to twice the term prescribed by law, and must serve 80% of it.

Persons with two prior felony convictions are sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole for at least 25 years.

According to figures from the California Department of Corrections, at the end of last year, there were 5,887 persons serving "Three Strikes" sentences. More than 1100, or 19%, of them had been sentenced for drug crimes, including 32 persons sentenced to life for marijuana violations. A clear majority of "Three Strikes" defendants were not sentenced for crimes of violence.

For people serving "two strikes" sentences, the number doing so for other than violent crimes climbed to 75%.

The human stories behind some of those sentences shock the conscience. The following are taken from Families to Amend California's Three-Strikes (FACT), on the web:

  • Luciano Orozco, San Diego County, sentenced to 25-to-life upon a third felony conviction, for possession of 1/20 of a gram of heroin. His previous convictions were for burglary in 1988 and 1981. He is married.
  • Doug Rash, Orange County, sentenced to 25-to-life upon a third felony conviction, for possession of 0.4 grams of cocaine. His previous convictions were for burglary (in both cases involving domestic disputes) in 1987 and 1985.
  • Rene Landa, Los Angeles County, sentenced to 27-years-to-life upon a third felony conviction, for stealing a spare tire. His previous convictions were for burglary in 1986 and 1972. He has a history of substance abuse. His victim was a Huntington Beach deputy.
  • Louis Donald Frank, San Bernadino County, sentenced to 25-to-life upon a fifth felony conviction, for possession of paraphernalia by a prisoner. He entered guilty pleas to three burglary charges on one day in 1988 and was serving time for a 1990 conviction for stealing a bicycle from a garage when charged on the paraphernalia count.
  • Kelly Lee Scherer, Shasta County, sentenced to 28-to-life upon a third felony conviction, for possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell. His previous convictions for burglary were both more than a decade old when he was convicted in 1997.
Despite the apparent inhumanity of such sentences -- aimed overwhelmingly at drug offenders or persons with histories of substance abuse -- a growing opposition coalition has so far been unable to get the "Three Strikes" laws amended. Efforts to do so in the California legislature have repeatedly failed under veto threats from law-and-order Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. A petition drive to put reforms on the ballot failed last year.

Proposition 36, the "treatment not jail" initiative passed into law by California voters in November, does, however, amend the law. It allows people charged with simple possession of drugs to go into treatment programs -- rather than suffer a "Three-Strikes penalty -- if the drug possession occurred more than five years after the defendant's release from prison or last felony or violent misdemeanor conviction.

There are also signs that local prosecutors are amenable to political persuasion. In Los Angeles County, Steve Cooley defeated incumbent Gil Garcetti in the District Attorney's race at least in part because he promised to not try nonviolent or minor drug offenders under the "Three Strikes" provisions. (Instead he offered to only try them as "two-strikers," merely doubling their sentences.)

Early this month, Cooley was forced to live up to his campaign promise after his office first moved to prosecute two men, one charged with receiving two stolen cans of ArmorAll and the other with cocaine possession, as third-strikers. The reversal came only after public defenders complained publicly, the Los Angeles Times reported.

But that is not nearly enough for opponents, who call for comprehensive reforms of the law. FACT has posted a multi-point reform plan ( calling for the law to apply exclusively to new violent crimes; no applicability for crimes committed before its enactment in 1994; no counting multiple felonies during a single act as multiple strikes; a 10-year limit on offenses that would count as strikes, removing burglary of an uninhabited dwelling from the list of serious felonies; and retroactivity, so prisoners already sentenced under old provisions could appeal for reductions.

While the coalition to reform the "Three Strikes" bill is broad-based -- an alphabetical listing of endorsers finds the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times, the League of Revolutionaries for a New America and the Libertarian Party listed consecutively -- it is still small. But the activists vow to continue until justice is done.

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Issue #173, 2/16/01 Incarceration Fever About to Break? Prison Populations Leveling Off in Some Big States | California's "Three Strikes" Law Continues to Snare Mainly Drug and Nonviolent Offenders | John Ashcroft's Drug War | Oklahoma Meth Mess | One Third of Indigenous Prisoners in Mexico Imprisoned on Drug Charges | New Site Uses Traffic Movie to Raise Awareness, Free Daily DVD or Video Give-Away for Participants | Book Review: The Politics of Medical Marijuana | Errata: Ecstasy Conference, Calendar | The Reformer's Calendar | Editorial: A Postcard from Mexico
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