27-03-13 Cruel and Unusual Punishment: The Shame of Three Strikes Laws

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While Wall Street crooks walk, thousands sit in California prisons for life over crimes as trivial as stealing socks
  Cruel and Unusual Punishment: The Shameof Three Strikes Laws While Wall Street crooks walk, thousands sit in Californiaprisons for life over crimes as trivial as stealing socks by: Matt Taibbi Illustration by Victor Juhasz O n July 15th, 1995, in the quiet Southern California city of Whittier, a 33-year-old black man named Curtis Wilkerson got up from a booth at McDonald's, walked into anearby mall and, within the space of two hours, turned himself into the unluckiest manon Earth. I was supposed to be waiting there while my girlfriend was at the beautysalon, he says.So he waited. And waited. After a while, he paged her. She was like, 'I need another hour,' he says. So I was like, 'Baby, I'm going to the mall.' Having grown up with no father and a mother hooked on barbiturates, Wilkerson, whosays he still boasts a Reggie Miller jumper, began to spend more time on the streets.  After his mother died when he was 16, he fell in with a bad crowd, and in 1981 heserved as a lookout in a series of robberies. He was quickly caught and sentenced tosix years in prison. After he got out, he found work as a forklift operator, anddistanced himself from his old life.But that day in the mall, something came over him. He wandered from store to store, bought a few things, still shaking his head about his girlfriend's hair appointment.After a while, he drifted into a department store called Mervyn's. Your typical chainstore, full of mannequins and dress racks; they're out of business today. Suddenly, a pair of socks caught his eye. He grabbed them and slipped them into a shopping bag.What kind of socks were they, that they were worth taking the risk? They were million-dollar socks with gold on 'em, he says now, laughing almostuncontrollably, as he tells the story 18 years later, from a telephone in a correctionalfacility in Soledad, California.Really, they were that special? No, they were ordinary white socks, he says, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Didn't even have any stripes. Wilkerson never made it out of the store. At the exit, he was, shall we say, over-enthusiastically apprehended by two security officers. They took him to the storesecurity office, where the guards started to argue with each other over whether or notto call the police. One guard wanted to let him pay for the socks and go, but the other guard was more of a hardass and called the cops, having no idea he was about to writehimself a part in one of the most absurd scripts to ever hit Southern California.Thanks to a brand-new, get-tough-on-crime state law, Wilkerson would soon besentenced to life in prison for stealing a pair of plain white tube socks worth $2.50.Gangster Bankers Broke Every Law in the Book  No, sir, I was not expecting that one, he says now, laughing darkly. BecauseWilkerson had two prior convictions, both dating back to 1981, the shoplifting chargecounted as a third strike against him. He was sentenced to 25 years to life, meaningthat his first chance for a parole hearing would be in 25 years.And given that around 80 percent of parole applications are rejected by parole boards,and governors override parole boards in about 50 percent of the instances where   parole is granted, it was a near certainty that Wilkerson would never see the outside of a prison again.The state also fined him $2,500 – restitution for the stolen socks. He works that off by putting in four to five hours a day in the prison cafeteria, for which he gets paid $20 amonth, of which the state takes $11. At this rate, he will be in his nineties before he's paid the state off for that one pair of socks.As for the big question – does he ever wish he could go back in time and wait it out inthat McDonald's for another hour, instead of 18 years in the California prison system? – Wilkerson, who has learned to laugh, laughs again. Man, he says, I think about that every single day. W ilkerson is unlucky, but he's hardly alone. Despite the passage in late 2012 of anew state ballot initiative that prevents California from ever again giving out lifesentences to anyone whose third strike is not a serious crime, thousands of people – the overwhelming majority of them poor and nonwhite – remain imprisoned for avariety of offenses so absurd that any list of the unluckiest offenders reads like amacabre joke, a surrealistic comedy routine.Have you heard the one about the guy who got life for stealing a slice of pizza? Or theguy who went away forever for lifting a pair of baby shoes? Or the one who got 50 tolife for helping himself to five children's videotapes from Kmart? How about the guywho got life for possessing 0.14 grams of meth? That last offender was a criminalmastermind by Three Strikes standards, as many others have been sentenced to life for holding even smaller amounts of drugs, including one poor sap who got the max for 0.09 grams of black-tar heroin.This Frankenstein's monster of a mandatory-sentencing system isn't just somelocalized bureaucratic accident, but the legacy of a series of complex political choiceswe all made as voters decades ago. California's Three Strikes law has its srcins in aterrible event from October 1993, when, in a case that outraged the entire country, aviolent felon named Richard Allen Davis kidnapped and murdered an adolescent girlnamed Polly Klaas. Californians were determined to never again let a repeat offender get the chance to commit such a brutal crime, and so a year later, with the Klaas casestill fresh in public memory, the state's citizens passed Proposition 184 – the ThreeStrikes law – with an overwhelming 72 percent of the vote. Under the ballot initiative,anyone who had committed two serious felonies would effectively be sentenced to jailfor life upon being convicted of a third crime.  On Daily Beast: California Death Penalty Survives, Three Strikes Cut Back The overwhelming support for the measure touched off a nationwide get-tough-on-crime movement, embraced especially by third-way-style Democrats, who seizedupon the policy idea as a powerful weapon in their efforts to throw off their party's bleeding-heart image and recapture the political center. Having seen their wonk-geekish 1988 presidential candidate, Michael Dukakis, expertly exploded by theinfamous Willie Horton ad cooked up by Republican strategist Lee Atwater – an adthat convinced voters that the Democrats were the party of scary-looking black rapistson furlough – Democrats had spent years searching for a way to send Middle Americaa different message.Three Strikes was a perfect way to convey that new message. The master triangulator himself, Bill Clinton, stumped for a national Three Strikes law in his 1994 State of theUnion address. When a federal version passed a year later, Clinton took special care togive squeamish wuss-bunny liberals a celebratory kick in the ear, using the same Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists rhetorical technique George W.Bush would make famous a few years later. Narrow-interest groups on the left andthe right didn't want the bill to pass, Clinton beamed, and you can be sure thecriminals didn't either. A national craze was born. By the late Nineties, 24 states and the federal governmenthad some kind of Three Strikes law. Not all are as harsh as the California law, butthey all embrace the basic principle of throw-away-the-key mandatory sentencing for the incorrigible recidivist. O nce California's Three Strikes law went into effect at midnight on March 8th,1994, it would take just nine hours for it to claim its first hapless victim, a homelessschizophrenic named Lester Wallace with two nonviolent burglaries on his sheet, whoattempted 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 attackednumerous 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 developedsevere 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 Californiavoters chose to reform the law, the state still won't agree to release him. He's a guy
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