By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Lea Rubin|
When Mandy Brazell’s fiancé, Teddy Baldwin, was in his early 20s, he was sent to prison twice — once for burglarizing a house, the second time for breaking into a car. After that, she says, he learned his lesson and stayed out of trouble for several years after his release. But then his son died of leukemia, and Baldwin slipped back into the grip of a cocaine addiction. In short order, he was arrested on drug charges.
“He did something wrong, and he deserved punishment,” says Brazell, a slight 21-year-old with pale-blue eyes and blond hair pulled back in a bun. “He should have got five or six years.”
Instead, Baldwin was sentenced last January to 25 years to life in prison — another petty criminal caught in the sweeping net of California’s “Three Strikes” law.
Brazell, who lives in Sacramento, was in South Los Angeles’ Leimert Park on March 6 to help mark the 10th anniversary of the law’s enactment. Some 200 people gathered on the park’s lawn for a rally and candlelight vigil, surrounded by cardboard “tombstones” bearing the names and pictures of their loved ones who will be spending decades behind bars.
The event was organized by a local group, Families To Amend California’s Three Strikes. FACTS has been lobbying unsuccessfully for years to amend the law, enshrined by a 1994 ballot initiative, which mandates a double sentence for anyone convicted of a second serious or violent felony, and 25-to-life for conviction on a third felony — any felony. Thanks to that wide-open wording, while the law has taken many hardcore criminals off the streets, it has also swept up hundreds of minor offenders for transgressions as picayune as drug possession or shoplifting.
“We’ve done rallies, vigils, petitions. We’ve bussed people to Sacramento and stayed up all night. We’ve done everything an organization can do,” says FACTS executive director Geri Silva. “And our members look at us and say, ‘My son is still in prison. What’s changed?’ But now, they see there’s finally a chance.”
Until now, Three Strikes has survived a barrage of challenges in arenas from the state Legislature to the United States Supreme Court. But this year it may be reined in by the very people who put it in place — California’s voters. An alliance of criminal-
justice-reform groups are well on their way to getting an initiative on the November ballot to remake the law into what voters thought it was in the first place — a statute that will send only violent or genuinely serious third-time offenders away for life.
Timing may prove opportune. With crime down, a new governor and an ongoing budget crisis that has legislators looking to save money anywhere they can, Three Strikes may be politically vulnerable.
Since 1994, more than two dozen states have also passed some kind of law that mandates 25-years-to-life imprisonment for third-time felony offenders. But California’s is by far the most extensively used and broadly worded. According to a study released this month by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), a Washington, D.C.–based sentencing-reform group, more than 42,000 prisoners — more than one-fourth of the state’s total — are serving doubled or 25-to-life sentences under Three Strikes. Nearly two-thirds of them are doing time for a nonviolent offense. That number includes more than 1,000 inmates serving 25-to-life for theft under $400 or drug possession. Some of their crimes practically define the word petty: One man is doing 31 years for stealing a pair of AA batteries; another got 25 years for shoplifting three packs of J.C. Penney T-shirts.
Leon Shirley, 51, a wound-up cannonball of a man from West Los Angeles, knows all about it. His brother Gaylon, he says, was sentenced to 28-to-life for holding 6.8 grams of crack. “He’s 50 now. I don’t think he’ll ever get out,” says Shirley. “This is a law affecting mainly poor people. People like Rush Limbaugh go to drug rehab. My brother goes to prison.”
Keeping all those third-strikers locked up for so long is also costing taxpayers millions of dollars every year. It costs about $28,000 a year to keep the average convict in prison, and the price goes up as they age and their health deteriorates.
Still, the bottom-line question for most people is: Does Three Strikes make us safer? The evidence is, at best, ambiguous. The state’s crime rate has gone down dramatically since 1994 — but so has crime nationwide. Most experts chalk that up to a combination of factors, including changing demographics that have temporarily lowered the number of young men — the most crime-prone group — in the population, the waning of the violent crack trade, smarter policing techniques, and the formerly booming economy.
Moreover, the JPI study found that California counties that used the Three Strikes law less saw violent crime drop by an even greater margin over the last 10 years than did crime in counties that use Three Strikes more often. And crime in New York, which has no Three Strikes law, dropped even more than crime in California over the same period.
But the law’s supporters aren’t impressed. Former Secretary of State Bill Jones, who co-authored Three Strikes and is gunning for Democrat Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat this year, maintains that “There are tens of thousands of fewer crime victims and thousands of individuals alive today due to this vital law.” Fresno resident Mike Reynolds, who helped author the statute after his daughter Kimber was murdered by a drug-addled mugger with several prison stints under his belt, points to FBI statistics showing that crime fell further between 1993 and 1998 in California than in any other state except New York. (Those same statistics, however, also show that some states without Three Strikes laws outpaced California in reducing violent crime.)