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California Horror Stories And The 3-Strikes Law

Publication Date: 
November 24, 2012
Source: 
The New York Times
Author: 
Brent Staples

Lecturer and Director of the Three Strikes Project, Michael Romano, spoke with the New York Times' Brent Staples on the "relationship of mental illness and three-strikes prosecutions."

Californians brought a close to a shameful period in the state’s history when they voted this month to soften the infamous “three strikes” sentencing law. The original law was approved by ballot initiative in 1994, not long after a parolee kidnapped and murdered a 12-year-old girl. It was sold to voters as a way of getting killers, rapists and child molesters off the streets for good.

As it turned out, three strikes created a cruel, Kafkaesque criminal justice system that lost all sense of proportion, doling out life sentences disproportionately to black defendants. Under the statute, the third offense that could result in a life sentence could be any number of low-level felony convictions, like stealing a jack from the back of a tow truck, shoplifting a pair of work gloves from a department store, pilfering small change from a parked car or passing a bad check. In addition to being unfairly punitive, the law drove up prison costs.

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Mentally ill inmates are nearly always jailed for behaviors related to their illness. Nationally, they account for about one-sixth of the prison population. The ratio appears to be higher among three-strike lifers in California. According to a 2011 analysis of state data by Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project, nearly 40 percent of these inmates qualify as mentally ill and are receiving psychiatric services behind bars.

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Asked about the relationship of mental illness and three-strikes prosecutions, Michael Romano, director of the Stanford project, responded, “In my experience, every person who has been sentenced to life in prison for a nonserious, nonviolent crime like petty theft suffers from some kind of mental illness or impairment — from organic brain disorders, to schizophrenia, to mental retardation, to severe P.T.S.D.,” or post-traumatic stress disorder.

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In other words, these were discarded people who could be made to bear the brunt of this brutal law without risk of public backlash. Among the more horrifying cases investigated by the Three Strikes Project is that of 55-year-old Dale Curtis Gaines, who suffers from both mental retardation and mental illness. He has never committed a violent crime, but is serving a life sentence for receiving stolen property. His first two strikes, daytime burglaries of empty homes during which he was unarmed, appear to have involved thefts valued at little more than pocket change.