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A Bad Law With No Reforms in Sight

January 06, 2002|SASHA ABRAMSKY

NEW YORK — Two months ago, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a shoplifter who had been given a three-strikes life sentence in California for stealing $153 worth of videotapes had received a cruel and unusual punishment. Yet, despite this decision, the political leadership in Sacramento still shows no sign of being ready to abandon the ill-considered law. State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer has made it a policy to defend all such three-strikes convictions, and thus it appears likely that the appellate court's ruling will be challenged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, with vocal defenders of the law like California Secretary of State Bill Jones opposing three-strikes reform, thousands of men continue to eke out lost lives behind bars.

One of those men is Billy Ochoa. Over the past few years, while writing a book on the reasons America's prison population has grown so large, I have gotten to know Billy well, visiting him several times in prison, talking to him on the phone and corresponding by mail. I was first drawn to his case because it seemed outlandish. I quickly learned it was all too commonplace--an emblem of what has gone wrong with parts of our country's criminal-justice system.

Five and a half years ago, Billy Ochoa was sentenced to 326 years in prison by a judge in Los Angeles. Ochoa was 53 at the time, a heroin addict who'd never, as an adult, been convicted of a violent crime. In the years since, he has lived in supermax housing at prisons like New Folsom and Corcoran, often locked in his cell for all but one hour a day. Occasionally he's allowed to play a game of handball in the prison yard. More often, he sits in his cell idling away the hours watching television or reading popular novels.

It is costing the state about $50,000 a year to keep Ochoa inside these ultra-secure prisons. If he lives into his 70s, California's taxpayers will spend more than $1 million on his incarceration.

As the recession has come into full bloom, politicians across the country have begun looking for ways to scale back their budgets. And, because prison expenditures have risen some 500% in the past 20 years, many states are now reexamining some of their more draconian criminal-justice policies, laws that were crafted at the height of the public panic over a perceived epidemic of lawlessness. After all, crime rates haven't been so low in decades, and opinion polls are finding that the electorate is now far more concerned about terrorism and a slumping economy than about crime.

Looking for ways to trim its corrections budget, Alabama recently passed a law allowing nonviolent inmates who had been sentenced to life under that state's habitual-offender statute to be released early through parole hearings. Last summer, Louisiana abolished mandatory minimum sentences for dozens of nonviolent crimes. In Wisconsin, there is open discussion on ending "fail 'em and jail 'em" mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenders.

But even as conservative Southern states like Alabama are reevaluating their habitual-offender laws, California has shown little impulse to discard its catch-all three-strikes law. The state certainly has a financial incentive to revisit the policy. Last August, the Washington D.C.-based Sentencing Project issued a report titled "Aging Behind Bars: 'Three Strikes' Seven Years Later." The authors estimated that, with 1,200 three strikes inmates a year currently entering the California prison system, by the year 2026 the state would be imprisoning an estimated 30,000 three-strikers "at a conservative cost of $750 million annually."

Ochoa's story is a prime example of why this law must change. Because he is a three-striker newly sentenced to a long prison term, he is automatically deemed a flight risk and thus has been placed in the highest-security prisons in the state. But, Ochoa doesn't fit the profile of the kind of hard-core criminal three strikes was intended to permanently remove from the streets. He's just a short man with bad teeth, gray hair and a noticeable potbelly whose habit led him to numerous arrests for drug possession and small-time burglaries.

When Ochoa was last arrested (in the Northern California town of Arcadia under the pseudonym of Richard Guttierez), it was because his parole officer had discovered that he had applied for food stamps and emergency-shelter vouchers under 13 aliases. When his drug cravings grew too strong, he would head to a welfare office and apply for emergency aid. He then sold his food stamps to get money for heroin.

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