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Another Petty Three-Strikes Case, Ruining Lives

Most third-strike prisoners are minorities with nonviolent convictions. Is this justice?

March 22, 1997|LUIS CARRILLO | Luis Carillo is an attorney in Monterey Park

There we were, in Compton Superior Court, waiting for trial to resume in a criminal case that I was handling. The sheriff's bailiff brought out a young black man in handcuffs; his case was called first. His defense lawyer, Cedric Payne, made an eloquent plea to the judge, Rose Hom, asking her to strike a prior conviction so that his client would not be sentenced to 25 years to life in state prison, the sentence for a man convicted of a third felony. The defense lawyer argued that the underlying offense, being an ex-felon with a gun, would be only a misdemeanor if his client had not once been convicted of a felony.

The defendant was a good father, argued Payne, and was living with his family, helping with his children. The prosecutor argued for the full 25 years to life. While the arguments of the attorneys went back and forth, the defendant's wife, sitting in the front row of the spectators' section, held up in her arms the defendant's newborn baby girl so that he could see his daughter. Next to the wife sat two little boys, about 4 and 3, also the children of the defendant, too young to understand that this might be a permanent farewell.

The judge pronounced her sentence: 25 years to life, and another anonymous defendant joined the 71% of third-strike felons in state prisons who are African American or Latino. African Americans make up the largest group, 43.7%, and Latinos comprise 27.8% of third-strike prisoners. According to statistics compiled by Michael Judge, the L.A. County public defender, the most common "strike" charges are drugs (30%), theft (16%) and burglary (15%). Violent and serious crimes account for only about one-fourth of all third strikes, although of course the criminal history of strike defendants may include prior convictions for violent and serious crimes.

Figures like these, and scenes like the one in the Compton courtroom, were surely part of the pressure that resulted in recent state appeals court rulings that gave judges at least limited power to use their own good judgment in third-strike cases. But even as the courts ruled, legislators in Sacramento were already seeking ways to close three-strike "loopholes."

Would we really have a third-strike law at all if 71% of those sentenced on three-strike cases were white?

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the developed world, imprisoning more men and women than the old Soviet Union or apartheid South Africa.

Some defendants, like murderers, rapists and child molesters, deserve 25 years to life in prison; but not those convicted of possessing a rock of cocaine, often less than one gram; not those whose only offense is that of being an ex-felon in possession of a gun, a circumstance that is nearly the norm in some gun-ridden neighborhoods.

Americans have more than 200 million handguns, nearly one for every man, woman and child, and Hollywood glorifies the use of handguns. Society is not fighting the crime rate; we are fighting the birth rate. Each youngster who becomes a teenager has easy access to handguns, thanks in part to the National Rifle Assn.'s ferocious opposition to reasonable gun control laws.

And so, in that Compton courtroom that day, another angry black man was led out in chains from the court and his family walked out another door, silent and dejected.

A white defendant like Brian McMorrow, who happened to be the grandson of a big contributor to Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, got a plea bargain on a potentially third-strike attempted arson charge in 1995 and served less than a year in jail, while minority defendants routinely receive 25 years to life with similar histories and lesser current charges. About half of the third-strike convictions are for possession or sale of small amounts of drugs or petty thefts.

It is no wonder we hear from time to time about juries taking the law into their hands, refusing to convict on the pettiest of third-strike cases. Ordinary people have the sense to see the inequities being committed in the name of the three-strikes law. Too bad the Legislature is blind to real justice.

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