Join 3,416 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


1) “But there are other lives to be saved, of people who haven’t done horrible things, who haven’t actually hurt anyone.” 2) "Fix it or lose it."
May 22, 2010 7:02 PM   Subscribe

Arguing Three Strikes. A defense lawyer (and co-founder of Stanford's unique Criminal Defense Clinic), and a tough-on-crime Republican D.A. make for unusual allies in the move to reform California's Three Strikes law.

(In an interesting sidebar, former Napster C.E.O. Eileen Richardson is now running Palo Alto's Downtown Streets Team, which has successfully employed one of the men released through the efforts of the Stanford Clinic after the prosecutor challenged Romano:“O.K., what you’ve really shown me is that all this guy knows how to do is steal. So why should I let him out? What are you going to do for him?”)

Previously.
posted by availablelight (53 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Everyone thinks I'm putting them on when I talk about the desirability of forced internment of half the American population in socialist reeducation camps. Then I describe California's megalithic penal system, and explain how mass incarceration is actually our cultural norm.

And then they get a little uncomfortable. It makes me smile.
posted by clarknova at 7:49 PM on May 22, 2010 [11 favorites]


Everyone's got a sob story. No system's perfect.
posted by HTuttle at 8:36 PM on May 22, 2010


Everyone's got a sob story. No system's perfect.

True. And neither of those statements negate the fact that it doesn't make much sense--from a fiscal, practical, or moral standpoint--to jail a 3x petty thief for life. Cooley is careful to link on his campaign blog an article boasting of his success in sentencing people to death, and his staunch support of the three strikes law....and even he has taken the initiative to reform how it's applied. This isn't a "bleeding heart liberal" tale.
posted by availablelight at 8:41 PM on May 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


Everyone's got a sob story. No system's perfect.
posted by HTuttle at 8:36 PM on May 22 [+] [!] [quote]


EponysWTF
posted by brundlefly at 8:42 PM on May 22, 2010 [17 favorites]


Baseball analogies and jurisprudence are not now, nor have they ever been, good bedfellows. The complexities of maintaining a civilized society cannot be encapsulated by the rules of a sporting event.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:57 PM on May 22, 2010 [11 favorites]


Now California is in the midst of fiscal calamity.

Hello, Proposition 13. I moved out of California early in the spring of the year that law was passed, and even as a mostly apolitical 15 year old, I knew it was the beginning of the end. The unraveling since has been slowly gaining steam. Sad.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:04 PM on May 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


What will be the net benefit?

For every crook they jail for a long time [awww] how many innocent citizens will benefit? I think that's the only question you have to answer.

If they keep on giving people the befenit of the doubt, revolving door prisons, whatever you want to call it, how many innocent citizens will suffer?

Same question in reverse.

Of course there's the cost of incarceration via increased taxes. But that can be factored into the "net benefit" question.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 9:05 PM on May 22, 2010


Of course there's the cost of incarceration via increased taxes.

I'm not going to look up cites because I'm not an expert in this, but I believe it's been shown again and again and again that drug rehabilitation & quality education are orders of magnitude less expensive than life-long incarceration. Not to even mention that those two things might actually prevent a number of the crimes, and their attendant costs, from coming to pass in the first place.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:12 PM on May 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


If imprisoning a man for life over petty thief is for the greater good, presumably the majority of investment bankers should be hanging from the rafters.
posted by milarepa at 9:16 PM on May 22, 2010 [15 favorites]


thief theft
posted by milarepa at 9:17 PM on May 22, 2010


I was just listening to Justice Kennedy talk about this on a Q&A on cspan.

Here's a speech he gave on this in 2003.
posted by empath at 9:25 PM on May 22, 2010


I'm not going to look up cites because I'm not an expert in this, but I believe it's been shown again and again and again that drug rehabilitation & quality education...

Shit! I forgot about that part.

Stop the ludicrous War on Drugs, decriminalise, increase education yada yada, THEN three strikes might make more sense.

Cheers, Devils Rancher.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 9:41 PM on May 22, 2010


After three strikes became law, Cooley watched one of his colleagues in the D.A.’s office prosecute Gregory Taylor, a homeless man who at dawn one morning in 1997 went to a church where he’d often gotten meals and pried open the door to its food pantry. The priest later testified on his behalf. Taylor’s first crime was a purse-snatching; his second was attempting to steal a wallet. He didn’t hurt anyone. Taylor was sentenced to life.

So the three crimes this man committed, without hurting anyone were: purse snatching, attempted theft of a wallet, breaking into a food pantry. Sentence: LIFE.

Explain to me, how this is not "cruel and unusual punishment"? Cruel, as in insanely disproportionate? The second most severe punishment after the death penalty? A sentence that is given to hard core murderers? Is there anyone who could possibly think this is anything but cruel?

Yes, there is. The country's most distinguished judges, the highest judicial authority, the wise U.S. Supreme Court Justices:

"the Supreme Court’s twin rulings on three strikes. In 2003, the justices voted 5-4 to reject the argument that three strikes violates the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel-and-unusual punishment."

I submit, that if you cannot see the above as prima facie cruel punishment, then all bets are off - this isn't just questionable - this means that the word "cruel" has lost its meaning for these justices.

If our highest justices cannot see something as plain and indisputable as this, then the system is definitively broken, no ifs, buts and maybes.
posted by VikingSword at 9:43 PM on May 22, 2010 [13 favorites]


Everyone's got a sob story. No system's perfect.

That's five years in the gulag for you.
posted by clarknova at 9:56 PM on May 22, 2010 [8 favorites]


California’s Annual Cost to Incarcerate an Inmate in Prison 2008-09: $48,843
posted by rtha at 10:41 PM on May 22, 2010


As it turned out, everybody did have a sob story, and no system was perfect. Anna cried about the new Apple OS, which, she said, slowed down her older MacBook. Donnie wept that "Lonely Day" by System of a Down should have won Best Hard Rock Performance in the 49th Grammy Awards in 2007, but lost to "Woman" by Wolfmother. Arnold cried because eventually the solar system would decay and collapse into the sun. And Buddy? Don't even get him started on his problems with his digestive system unless you want to hear a grown man gasp for air, audible choking on his own weeping, tears streaming from his face.

Alas, nothing could be done about any of it. Because systems are imperfect, which means they can never be criticized and never be improved, and if that meant that Buddy was going to have an impacted colon, well, suck it up, Buddy.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:32 AM on May 23, 2010 [25 favorites]


So the three crimes this man committed, without hurting anyone were: purse snatching, attempted theft of a wallet, breaking into a food pantry. Sentence: LIFE.

Explain to me, how this is not "cruel and unusual punishment"?


Explain to me how you know he’s not going to keep committing crimes.

Explain to me how his next “without hurting” [ha!] purse snatch won’t be on an 80 year old woman. “Wow, even thought I’m 80, lucky I have the shoulder and elbow joints of a 25 year old man, lucky his criminal history is “hurt free” and this sort of thing won’t fuck me up for the rest of my days, impacting on me, my family, and tax payers.”

It’s totally awesome that his crimes will stay “without hurting.”

It’s totally awesome that VikingSword's example is the norm. The people who favourited his comment are also totally awesome. I think it would be totally awesome that his next “without hurting” purse snatch happens to their grandmothers. Er, if it ever happens again, that is [ha!].

I do have an immense amount of sympathy and empathy for people who steal food “without hurting.”
posted by uncanny hengeman at 1:16 AM on May 23, 2010


Hello, Proposition 13.
California's state and local tax revenue per capital figure isn't especially low.
posted by planet at 1:43 AM on May 23, 2010


I say we lock hengeman. We have no evidence he won't commit crimes.
posted by rodgerd at 1:54 AM on May 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


Uncanny Hengemen:
Can you explain to me how your the three strikes laws will not in the future do irreparable harm to the life of a perfectly good person? Explain to me how a teenage prankster who might have grown out of an idiotic phase in a couple years time won't end up in prison for life because of a couple counts of marijuana possession and stealing a pack of beer from the quick mart. Explain to me how the three strikes law makes California a better place 'without hurting.'

No?

How about a guarantee, then, that YOU will never mug an 80-year-old woman. Because right now I have about equal evidence that you and Williams would be capable of that crime, with the weight drifting towards yourself for having shown yourself to be totally fucking heartless. Can't provide evidence of your future non-crimes against the elderly? Off to prison for life with you then.

The potential harm of an poorly crafted law is far, far greater than the potential harm of a three-time petty thief, whose minor and non-violent crimes were spread over fifteen years.
posted by kaibutsu at 1:54 AM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


uncanny hengeman: "Explain to me how you know he’s not going to keep committing crimes."

Explain to me how you can think it's a good idea to keep people locked up for life for the crimes you can't prove they won't commit in the future.

If you can do that, explain why we shouldn't be pre-emptively locking up people who come from the sorts of backgrounds which give them a high probability of committing future crimes.
posted by alexei at 2:04 AM on May 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


Can you explain to me how your the three strikes laws will not in the future do irreparable harm to the life of a perfectly good person?

Never said that, sizzlechest. Net benefit is what I asked. I have no answers at my fingertips. Obviously some of you do.

Can you guarantee the NET SUFFERING of three strikes vs. not three strikes? I can ask the exact same question you asked in terms of a criminal being set free. Shit, I hardly even have to change any words around.

Can you explain to me how the rescinding of three strikes laws will not in the future do irreparable harm to the life of a perfectly good person?
posted by uncanny hengeman at 2:29 AM on May 23, 2010


Can you explain to me how the rescinding of three strikes laws will not in the future do irreparable harm to the life of a perfectly good person?

I can't predict the future.

Can you explain to me how not rescinding the three strikes laws will not in the future do irreparable harm to the life a perfectly good person?
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:37 AM on May 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't think a false dichotomy is terribly useful here. The question isn't whether people are likely to commit more than three crimes. It's whether locking people up for life after three crimes is more unfair to the criminal than their eventual freedom would be to the general public.

That's a nontrivial question and I understand the desire to break it down into simpler components. But I don't think "can you not undisprove whether person X won't have potentially not undone an ungentleness" is a component of that question.

Let alone simpler. Than anything.
posted by Lorc at 3:18 AM on May 23, 2010


For every crook they jail for a long time [awww] how many innocent citizens will benefit? I think that's the only question you have to answer.

If 'benefit' you mean 'not be inconvenienced'. There was a story about a dude getting thrown in jail for stealing a pizza, and obviously every guilty person has innocent friends and family. How would you feel if it was your brother or child who had a run of bad luck and got thrown in jail for life for stealing a pizza?
posted by delmoi at 3:21 AM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Explain to me how you know he’s not going to keep committing crimes.

What difference does it make? How is it worth spending a million dollars for every 20 years to keep him in prison to keep him from stealing, perhaps, a few hundred dollars worth of stuff a year?
posted by delmoi at 3:24 AM on May 23, 2010


Can you explain to me how the rescinding of three strikes laws will not in the future do irreparable harm to the life of a perfectly good person?

What are you, 16, 17, yrs old? I'll try and keep this simple. No-one you provide the guarantee you're asking for and it's infantile to ask for one. However, what you can and should do is mitigate the risk of that person offending again. It is no coincidence high crime rates go hand in hand with any other measure of social deprivation you care to mention; poor, run-down, high-unemployment areas tend to have high crime rates. Programes to encourage offenders to move away from their self-destructive patterns of behaviour towards becoming functioning members of society is a win-win for everyone. How can it not be? If, being given the opportunity to change they keep offending, sure, sling them back in the cells but ffs, as a modern, progressive society, surely we have to give them the opportunity not to offend in the first place? The reward of saving someone from that kind of life is surely worth the risk?

Ultimately, you have to decide if you subscribe to the barbaric, inhumane and antiquated view that prisons are institutions solely for the punishment of offenders or to whether they can also be places of potential redemption.
posted by fatfrank at 3:30 AM on May 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


For every crook they jail for a long time [awww] how many innocent citizens will benefit? I think that's the only question you have to answer.

I can think of two more. How did you establish your ethical system that means that once someone has committed a crime, they are no longer to be considered as potential victims of injustice? And: have you ever in your life committed any kind of crime?
posted by stammer at 3:53 AM on May 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


For every crook they jail for a long time [awww] how many innocent citizens will benefit? I think that's the only question you have to answer

From the article:
Norman Williams will soon move into his own apartment in Palo Alto. None of the other clients for whom the Stanford clinic has won release have gotten in trouble

Also from the article: Norman Williams is a guy with a 71 IQ who was a pathetic failure at his half-hearted attempts at petty theft:

Williams, who is 46, was a homeless drug addict in 1997 when he was convicted of petty theft, for stealing a floor jack from a tow truck. It was the last step on his path to serving life. In 1982, Williams burglarized an apartment that was being fumigated: he was hapless enough to be robbed at gunpoint on his way out, and later he helped the police recover the stolen property. In 1992, he stole two hand drills and some other tools from an art studio attached to a house; the owner confronted him, and he dropped everything and fled. Still, for the theft of the floor jack, Williams was sentenced to life in prison under California’s repeat-offender law: three strikes and you’re out.

No one had visited him in prison for 10 years before Stanford took his case; he's now doing really well at his job placement. And not costing CA $50,000 per year.

All of you internet tough guys who think it's being soft on crime to NOT to lock up guys like Williams indefinitely should have a talk with Steve "look how many men I've sentenced to death" Cooley. Or we could all switch focus to a more interesting line of discussion.
posted by availablelight at 4:37 AM on May 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


Everyone's got a sob story. No system's perfect.
posted by ennui.bz at 4:41 AM on May 23, 2010


need more coffee...

Everyone's got a sob story. No system's perfect. posted by HTuttle at 8:36 PM on May 22 [+] [!]
posted by ennui.bz at 4:43 AM on May 23, 2010


Statistically it is quite likely that the criminal convicted of three crimes has in fact committed significantly more. What is the solve and conviction rate on purse snatching anyway? Are we really supposed to believe that the individual committed a mere 3 crimes, or is it more likely that they committed crimes continuously and despite having been caught and punished twice for this event, and knowing that there was a lifetime sentence in front of them, continued in his criminal lifestyle.
Shouldn't we take extraordinary measures sooner. In fact might it not build a stronger, more lasting political alliance to leave the third strike law in place and it's related costs in place to force a coalition to take earlier intervention designed to keep folks away from strike 3?
posted by humanfont at 5:04 AM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ultimately, you have to decide if you subscribe to the barbaric, inhumane and antiquated view that prisons are institutions solely for the punishment of offenders or to whether they can also be places of potential redemption.

I agree that prisons should attempt to reintegrate criminals into society. They should certainly attempt that for the first two offences, using all the best resources right from the start.

However I can see how one might think, after a third serious offence, that rehabilitation was not working.

The problems I see with three strikes, from the article, are counting less-serious crimes towards 3 strikes (like those committed by Norman Williams); counting very old crimes towards 3 strikes; and having three strikes triggered by a non-serious third crime. In other words, the 3 strikes law being used in cases other than persistent serious offenders.

If those faults were rectified, I think three strikes is a reasonable policy. I mean, people do have the opportunity to avoid three strikes, they just have to not commit three serious crimes.
posted by Mike1024 at 5:35 AM on May 23, 2010


humanfont: Statistically it is quite likely that the criminal convicted of three crimes has in fact committed significantly more.

Which statistics say this?

is it more likely that they committed crimes continuously and despite having been caught and punished twice for this event, and knowing that there was a lifetime sentence in front of them, continued in his criminal lifestyle.

In the case of Norman Williams, his first conviction was in 1982; his second in 1992 and the third in 1997. Also, as stated above, Mr Williams is stated to have an IQ of 71. I'm not sure how aware or cognizant do you suppose him to be, with regards to legal consequences.

In fact might it not build a stronger, more lasting political alliance to leave the third strike law in place and it's related costs in place to force a coalition to take earlier intervention designed to keep folks away from strike 3?

The polity are not interested in intervention. Hence the 3 strikes (of any kind) and throw away the key spirit of the policy.
posted by Gyan at 5:38 AM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


I say we lock hengeman. We have no evidence he won't commit crimes.
posted by rodgerd at 1:54 AM on May 23 [+] [!]


That is overly harsh, it would be fairer to simply move him to a mostly unpopulated continent filled with other potential criminals.
posted by atrazine at 5:43 AM on May 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


I do take a personal interest in this because my brother has 2 strikes against him: he stole a bike and when the cops arrived on the scene, he tried to get away. He was, as usual with him, high. That was about 15 years ago and after he did his 9 months in jail, he moved to Hawaii where he can surf to his heart's content. However every couple of years he comes back to California to visit my mom and it is always a bit nerve-wracking for everyone. He is an alcoholic and a drug addict with severely impaired judgment. He is also good-natured, funny, handsome, and skilled with his hands. He would never steal from a person on the street, but he might just try to shoplift some beer or drive while intoxicated. It will be a miracle if he doesn't end up in prison for life.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 5:55 AM on May 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


Gravy, I was with you until the part about driving while intoxicated. I'm sure your brother's an okay guy who doesn't deserve life in prison, but no one like that should be handed the keys to a car. Impaired driving's a long way from a victimless crime.
posted by anifinder at 6:30 AM on May 23, 2010


Three strikes is a third rail. From a practical sense, arguing in favour of removing it (which would require the support of the electorate, no?) is going to be neigh on impossible.

IMHO, California needs to rework what is a felony.

Why the hell is anything less than $5,000 felony petty theft? Why is there even a statute that says that any previous petty theft makes the second one a felony? Shouldn't that violate the equal protection laws?

Anything that you wouldn't reasonably send people to jail for more than a year for shouldn't be a felony. Seems like California has lost this along the way.
posted by Talez at 6:32 AM on May 23, 2010


An excellent point made in the article is that no extra funding is allocated to the defense for a third-strike case, whereas the average murder defendant is supplied with some $300,000 in legal resources by the state. So you can very easily end up with individuals with no reasonable defense available to them faced with life sentences; this is unfair to the defendant in the extreme. Requiring the allocation of, say, $50,000 in defense resources to people going to trial for their third strike would both limit abuse of the system and provide some real financial impetus for fixing the law. (not that the financial incentives for fixing the prison system have done anything...)
posted by kaibutsu at 6:40 AM on May 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'll try and keep this simple.

When you start a sentence like that, you might as well just stop.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:26 AM on May 23, 2010


It is unfortunate that uncanny hengeman and his interlocutors have turned this into a totally lame discussion.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:36 AM on May 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


Stop the ludicrous War on Drugs, decriminalise, increase education yada yada,

Yada yada? As long as all the solutions, all the things that are known to work better are nothing more than "yada, yada," then we'll continue to have politically expedient policies enacted that play well in ten-second sound bites, based on the rules of a sports game, because it sounds good coming out of a law-and-order politician's mouth, and we'll never even be able to discuss how to actually not needlessly wreck untold lives... yada, yada. Sorry, metabomb -- Why do I bother?
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:14 AM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Maybe they could go with a basketball analogy instead and allow 6 time outs.

I wonder what voters would think if they could see the actual cost to them. Like, if the average taxpayer could see that they were spending $300/year incarcerating non-violent offenders under the three strikes law.
posted by snofoam at 9:14 AM on May 23, 2010


Damn you, Abner Doubleday!!
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:47 AM on May 23, 2010


If only we could do some kind of blood test to separate these "criminals" from those individuals we refer to as "people".
posted by Space Coyote at 10:17 AM on May 23, 2010


Why is there even a statute that says that any previous petty theft makes the second one a felony? Shouldn't that violate the equal protection laws?
Why would treating people who act differently in different ways violate equal protection? Jailing only people who commit crimes doesn't violate equal protection either.
posted by planet at 10:31 AM on May 23, 2010


As a Canadian I have to say that "three strikes and you're going to jail for the rest of your life" is possibly the scariest fucking real actual enforced policy I've ever heard of.
posted by tehloki at 2:48 PM on May 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


Why would treating people who act differently in different ways violate equal protection? Jailing only people who commit crimes doesn't violate equal protection either.

If I shoplift an item and a serial shoplifter both shoplift an item we both did the same crime. Mine is a misdemeanor and the shoplifter's is a felony. According to the Great State of California we aren't equal under the law. The time for upgrading penalties for repeat offenders should be at sentencing through guidelines not upgrading petty charges to felonies.

I would also assume that someone being charged with felony petty theft for a shoplifting a small item would raise some eyebrows. And that the jury would eventually figure out they have a prior.

Wouldn't that be prejudicial to the defendant violating their right to a fair and speedy trial?

Each case should be considered on its own merit and not tainted by the prejudice of previous convictions. The time and person to extend an offender's punishment should be a judge not the legislature.
posted by Talez at 3:06 PM on May 23, 2010


What are you, 16, 17, yrs old? I'll try and keep this simple.

Crikey!

It is unfortunate that uncanny hengeman and his interlocutors have turned this into a totally lame discussion.

Indeed.

I'll leave you guys to it, then.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 4:07 PM on May 23, 2010


If I shoplift an item and a serial shoplifter both shoplift an item we both did the same crime. Mine is a misdemeanor and the shoplifter's is a felony. According to the Great State of California we aren't equal under the law.
That's right. People who act differently are not always accorded identical treatment under the law. This is not an equal protection problem under existing jurisprudence. Even in the slightest. I honestly can't even imagine how it could be, when the unequal treatment bears directly on the person's culpability.
I would also assume that someone being charged with felony petty theft for a shoplifting a small item would raise some eyebrows. And that the jury would eventually figure out they have a prior.
It's not necessary to tell the jury whether the crime is being charged as a felony or a misdemeanor during the trial, since the elements will be the same.
The time and person to extend an offender's punishment should be a judge not the legislature.
This is not, and never has been, American law. Under American law, the legislature determines what behavior will be criminal and the severity of the offense. In fact, common law crimes are unconstitutional under the American system.
posted by planet at 6:58 PM on May 23, 2010


I cannot believe that I just saw a comment from an actual human being that suggests locking someone up for life for a crime they 'might' commit. Wow. Why do we even have sentencing then? Why not just have one strike your out? You committed a crime? Well, you might do it again...GAME OVER THROW AWAY THE KEY.
posted by spicynuts at 7:55 AM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]



I cannot believe that I just saw a comment from an actual human being that suggests locking someone up for life for a crime they 'might' commit.

Forget it, Jake. It's Metafilter.
posted by availablelight at 10:01 AM on May 24, 2010


Y'know, in baseball, it's three strikes, you're out...but four balls and you get on base for free.

And you may be out, but you get to bat again a couple innings later, at most.

SO it's really an imperfect metaphor. Duh.
posted by notsnot at 11:31 AM on May 25, 2010


« Older From James Randi,...  |  "When on holiday, I ask him if... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments