In Victor Hugo’s immortal “Les Miserables,” Jean Valjean does 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephews. After his release, he is re-arrested for attempting to steal from a cleric and sent to Toulon Prison. When he escapes from that hell hole, and totally rehabilitates himself, he is nevertheless pursued through the sewers of Paris by the fanatical Police Inspector Javert. California’s “Three-Strikes” Law reminds me of that unrelenting Javert.
In 1994, Polly Klass, age 12, was murdered in California by parolee and repeat offender, the degenerate Richard Allen Davis. In response to this gruesome killing, the Legislature adopted, with a 72 percent voters’ approval, a draconian three-strikes-you’re-out law. It requires a judge to impose a 25 years to life sentence for a felony third-strikes offense committed after two serious or violent felonies.
According to California state officials, there presently are 7100 three-strikes prisoners incarcerated under that law. Most triggered their sentences by committing serious crimes. They include 294 convictions for murder, 34 for manslaughter, 1,408 robbery, 241 for child molesters, 136 for rape, and 83 for kidnapping.
However, there are also 344 prisoners convicted of petty theft, who are languishing, too, under the 25-years-to-life sentencing device. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two test cases, on November 5, that challenged the constitutionality of the California statue. The defendants are claiming the law violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” Twenty-six states, and the federal government, also, have comparable three-strike laws on their books.
One of the cases pending before the highest tribunal involves Leandro Andrade. He got hit with a 50-year-to-life sentence for shoplifting Kmart video tapes, like “Snow White” and “Free Willie,” valued at $153, years after his convictions for two home burglary offenses. Another target of the “three-strike” law is Gary Ewing. He got socked with a 25 years to life sentence for stealing three Callaway golf clubs worth $1,197. This, too, was years after his earlier convictions for robbery and burglary. The prosecutor in Ewing’s case could have elected to charge him with a misdemeanor, which would not have triggered the three-strikes law. Instead, the D.A. decided to charge him with a felony.
The U.S. 9th Circuit agreed with Andrade that his sentence was unconstitutional, but affirmed Ewing’s conviction. Unfortunately, for both defendants, the Supreme Court, under strict constructionist Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, tends to defer to the wisdom of state legislatures, when dealing with the appropriateness of the punishment for crimes committed under their laws.
One result of the “Three-Strikes” law is that California’s penal system is overflowing with inmates, mostly African-Americans and Latinos. And, for the first time in history, the “state’s budget for corrections has just equaled that for education and will soon surpass it” (Philip Zimbardo, ). Interestedly, if Hollywood actress Winona Ryder, were to get two more shoplifting convictions, she could be added to those statistics.
Law and Order types have a long history of bashing the poor and the working class, when it comes to their violation of the criminal law. That tough penal philosophy, however, doesn’t extend to corporate and white collar thugs. The FBI estimates that burglary and robbery costs the nation $3.8 billion a year. Compare this to the hundreds of billions of dollars stolen from Americans via corporate and white collar fraud, like the massive savings and loan scandal a few years back. That rip off alone cost the taxpayers $300 to $500 billion. According to motherjones.com, Health Care fraud, too, cost $100 to $400 billion a year.
Convicted recidivist corporate criminals are usually left off with a slap on the wrist and civil penalties. If it’s a really notorious case, some flunky is thrown to the lions. He usually serves his sentence at one of the Feds’ country club-like prisons, where his golf game generally improves.
Actually, the “Top 100 Corporate Criminals of the 1990s” are listed online (motherjones.com). The usual repeated offenders are found there, like: Exxon; Warner Lambert; United Technologies and General Electric. The crimes of the listed corporate wrongdoers run the gambit from Antitrust, Environmental, Food & Drug violations; to workers’ deaths, campaign financing irregularities, illegal boycotts, political bribery and outright fraud, particularly dealing with the sieve-like procurement of government contracts from the friendly boy-ohs at the Pentagon.
The celebrated author Ferdinand Lundberg, in his massive study of who really owns America, entitled, “The Rich and the Super-Rich,” documented corporate wrongdoers and their traditional kid gloves treatment by prosecutors. His investigation showed comparatively speaking, how these enormously wealthy crooks made the “Mafia and Crime Syndicates look like pushcart operations.” His book was published in 1968, and things have only gotten worse since then.
Additionally, George W. Bush Jr.’s America has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, just ahead of Russia, and more than five times greater than most industrialized nations. And incredibly, most of the people in prison today, like the drug law violators, were convicted of non-violent offenses.
It’s clear the “Three-Strikes” sentencing device will only add to the growing prison population disgrace. In addition, it discriminates in its application against poor and working class defendants, while leaving the wealthy ones, who cleverly hide behind a corporate shield: to steal, cheat, rob, conspire and to bribe over and over again, with impunity.
Finally, If a fifty years sentence for stealing video tapes doesn’t shock the conscience of the Supreme Court, nothing will. It should also compel the legislatures, and the Congress, too, in to repealing the “Three-Strikes” statutes, as being repugnant to the public policy of a free people.
WILLIAM HUGHES is the author of “Baltimore Iconoclast” (Writer’s Showcase), which is available online. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(C) WILLIAM HUGHES 2002