Why is Santos Reyes Facing Life in Prison?

In 1994, California voters passed the infamous “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” law, which is currently the nation’s toughest law for repeat criminal offenders. “Three strikes” was voted into law by citizens fearful of having violent criminals roaming their streets after spending only a few years in jail.

But it has resulted in the long-term incarceration of thousands of victims indicted on relatively minor charges. Ten years after the passage of the three-strikes referendum, “two-thirds of the people locked up under the law are nonviolent persons,” said Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of Justice Policy Institute.

One of the most egregious examples of injustice under the three-strikes law is the case of Santos Reyes, who was sentenced to 26 years to life for cheating on a driver’s license test. Reyes took the test for his illiterate cousin. “I felt like I needed to help him because he was going to work with me as a roofer, and he needed a California driver’s license first,” he said.

The sentence handed down to Reyes for this “crime” sets a whole new standard for the term “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Several components of the “three-strikes” law are little known to the public. For instance, if you have one serious or violent felony, and you are convicted of a second felony, the prison time doubles–no matter how serious or violent the second offense. Currently, there are 22,644 people in jail for nonviolent second strikes.

Likewise, the third conviction that qualifies a person for the maximum penalty doesn’t need to be serious or violent. There are over 400 crimes, including shoplifting, grand theft, larceny or fraud, which qualify as a potential third strike. More than 4,200 people are in prison on 25-years-to-life sentences for nonviolent crimes.

Other provisions of the law include counting juvenile convictions as a strike and allowing prosecutors to count two strikes out of a single prior case. Prior offenses can date back years–before the three-strikes law passed.

The financial burden the three-strikes law is incredible. “Since the law was implemented in 1994, the 10-year sum of nonviolent offenders is costing and will cost the state more than $4.7 billion,” according to a study by the Justice Policy Institute. Taxpayers spend about $30,000 a year to imprison each person, including medical care. This amount increases with the age of each prisoner. People over the age of 55 cost approximately $50,000 to 75,000 a year to incarcerate.

Since California is already struggling to balance its budget, these expenses take funding away from social services such as health care and education.

Santos Reyes got the three-strikes sentence for taking the written portion of the driver’s license test for his cousin, who could drive, but cannot read. The California Vehicle Code classifies “[using] a false or fictitious name or knowingly [concealing] any material fact in any document filed with the DMV” as a misdemeanor. However, in Santos’ case, the prosecutor elected to charge him with perjury–a felony that resulted in the three-strikes sentence.

Santos didn’t have the money to hire a private attorney to protect himself. He grew up poor in El Monte, Calif. After completing high school at Mountain View High School, he had to stop his education to work and help support his single mother and six siblings.

Santos had two prior strikes–a juvenile burglary charge for stealing a radio out of someone’s house, and a robbery charge at 22 years old. No one was injured in either case. The “perjury” charge stemming from the driver’s license test came 13 years later.

At the time of his arrest, Santos had a wife and two sons, aged 1 and 3. Initially, he was placed in a jail hours away from his family, by the Mexico border. He was later moved even further away, to Northern California. “After being transferred to state prison, far away from my family, I have lost contact with my wife and children,” he says. “Not knowing where my family is and how they are doing is very painful.”

Reflection and correction are the keys to progression. Where being “tough on crime” was once the methodology, now being “smart on crime” is the evolutionary next step. We cannot incarcerate our way out of social problems like poverty, drug addiction, lack of access to education and jobs, and lack of youth support programs. We need to take preventative approaches to give people opportunities to uplift themselves, so that they do not need to resort to criminal activity.

We need to end the injustice of the three-strikes law, which violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. It is tragic that these situations occur today in California. Please join our effort.

ERIN YOSHIOKA is executive director of the Free Santos Reyes Committee. She can be reached at: freesantosreyes@yahoo.com