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Putting a Face on Three-Strikes Injustice

August 23, 2004|Michael Sokolove | Michael Sokolove is the author of "The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw." He lives in Bethesda, Md.

I got a note from my friend Carl Jones the other day -- Carl Quinton Jones, prisoner No. E-66555 at Folsom State. Usually he writes letters on what he calls his "cellie's" typewriter. He tells me about his prison baseball team, complains about the food, asks me about my kids, discourses on anything but his future prospects -- of which he has had none. But this was a quick note penned on a prison-issue greeting card, and it included a new sentiment: hope.

"I hope to see you and your family when I get out," Carl wrote in his careful printing. "I'm hoping they will change the three-strikes law in November." California voters this fall will have a chance to vote yes or no on Proposition 66, which would soften the state's three-strikes law so that only those who have committed violent or serious crimes would be sent away for life. The three-strikes law was enacted in 1994, after the kidnapping and murder of Polly Klaas in Petaluma. Citizens, even those in low-crime areas, have felt strangely comforted, oddly unbothered, by the fact that huge numbers of men are being locked away for life, many of them for relatively minor offenses.

There are many disturbing statistics regarding the U.S. prison population, but this is my favorite: With just 5% of the world's population, the U.S. incarcerates an estimated one of every four prisoners in the world. California has been in the vanguard of harsh, mandatory sentencing, and its three-strikes law is the emblem of such policies. It is certainly not coincidental to the nation's large prison population that so many of the inmates are like Carl Jones: black or Latino men from the inner city, largely faceless to suburban, middle-class voters.

This is how Carl ended up as one of California's 42,000 second- or third-strikers affected by the three-strikes law: In 1990, he was convicted of a burglary at a private home. He carried no weapon and no one was home. A year later, he was convicted for another burglary under the same circumstances: no weapon, no one home. He did some time for that one, less than a year.

In 1994, he broke into Crenshaw High during summer vacation -- the same school where, 15 years earlier, he had been the gritty, clutch-hitting catcher on a historic baseball team that included two future big-league all-stars, Darryl Strawberry and Chris Brown. Nearly all his teammates, even the bench players, got a shot at pro ball. But when the scouts overlooked Carl, it shocked and deflated him. He found work pouring concrete at downtown construction projects but then fell into an addiction to crack cocaine.

What drove him to break into his old high school? Carl could never say. But Crenshaw was the last place where he had truly excelled, and I have wondered if he was looking for something he left behind: a sense of purpose and pride. He was a confused, down-on-his-heels guy in need of counseling and drug rehab. I don't know what his future would have held -- it certainly wasn't looking good -- but our nation's policy has never been to lock folks away for life on the basis of their poor prospects.

Carl's lawyer remembers the Crenshaw break-in as the eraser case, not because Carl erased anybody but because the only result of "this aimless foray into an unoccupied classroom" was that the ledge under the blackboard, the shelf that holds erasers, was ripped from the wall.

And that was strike three.

A judge gave Carl the mandatory: 25 years to life. He was 34 years old when he was sentenced; without a change in the law, his first opportunity for parole will be in 2019, when he is 58.

As is always the case with California ballot propositions, there is strong disagreement about what the actual effect of Prop. 66 will be if it passes. Proponents contend that it will free thousands of prisoners who, like Carl, have had a 25-year-to-life term imposed for nonviolent offenses and that it would shave millions of dollars from a prisons budget that is routinely rounded off in news reports to $6 billion a year.

Opponents, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have predictably fallen back on what initially drove enactment of three strikes: raw, primitive fear. The governor and Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer argued, among other things, that Prop. 66 would "flood our streets with thousands of dangerous felons, including rapists, child molesters and murderers," and that it would lead to the release of 26,000 convicted criminals, a figure more than seven times higher than the proponents' estimates of inmates whose sentence could even be reconsidered. Schwarzenegger's stance seems particularly gutless -- and a nod in the direction of the prison guards union, which has held sway over the last few California governors and has consistently pushed for ever harsher sentencing laws.

In addition to writing letters, Carl calls my home on occasion. I talk to him and then sometimes pass the phone to my 12-year-old son, because I know Carl craves conversations with people who are not inmates or guards. They don't have much to share, really. Carl tells him to stay in school and stay out of trouble.

With a child's righteous indignation, my son sometimes demands that I help Carl -- that there must be something I can do to get him out. I have to tell him, sadly, that there isn't. But now it looks as if there is something the voters can do, and I fervently hope they make the right choice.

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