• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

ONE WEEK TO DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!

We are inching along, but not as quickly as we (or you) would like. If you have already donated, thank you so much. If you haven’t had a chance, consider skipping the coffee this week and drop CounterPunch $5 or more. We provide our content for free, but it costs us a lot to do so. Every dollar counts.
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Legal Absurdities

It is always refreshing when awareness and consequences catch up with the absurd. For more than 40 years, some thought that the way to reduce criminal activity was to limit the number of crimes a person was permitted to commit before life in prison without parole became the imperative alternative. Such enlightened approaches to crime were known as “three strikes” laws. Absurd applications are legion but my favorite is the Texas case of Rummel v. Estelle that was especially instructive because it introduced into the world of the air conditioner repairman a cautionary note. The case stands for the proposition that failure to satisfactorily repair an air conditioner when charging for the work may lead to a prison sentence of life without parole.

In 1964 William James Rummel was convicted of fraudulently using a credit card in order to obtain $80 worth of goods or services and sentenced to 3 years in jail. One way of looking at that sentence was that if he got to keep the $80 worth of goods or services he effectively paid $26.67 for each of the years he spent in prison. Unfortunately, prison was not a didactic experience for him.

Within a year after his release, he passed a forged check in the amount of $28.36, pled guilty and was given 4 more years in the penitentiary at a cost to him, if he got to keep the money, of $7.09 a year. Viewed in a positive light, he was given room and board for 4 years for a very modest sum. The only thing he didn’t get was freedom. Sadly, and herein lies the cautionary tale for air conditioner repair people, it was his attempt to earn an honest living that got him back into prison for life.

As soon as he was released he went into the air conditioning repair business and charged a customer $120.75 for a repair. His work was unsatisfactory but he refused to return what he had been paid. In Texas that constitutes obtaining money under false pretenses and convicted of that, he was sentenced to prison for life under Texas’s three strikes law. He appealed and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his sentence.

In an opinion written by Chief Justice Rehnquist in 1980, the Court held Mr. Rummel’s sentence did not violate the 8th and 14th Amendments’ ban against cruel and unusual punishment. The Chief Justice, apparently somewhat embarrassed by upholding Mr. Rummel’s sentence, said: “We all of course, would like to think that we are ‘moving down the road toward human decency’ Furman v. Georgia . . .. Within the confines of this judicial proceeding, however, we have no way of knowing in which direction that road lies” Not being a legal cartographer I could not then have commented on whether he was right or wrong in not knowing in which direction “that road lies.” Events today suggest, however, that he and his colleagues would have been well served by a legal GPS, had such a device then been available to the Court, since Mr. Rummel was one of many in the United States who received life sentences courtesy of the three strike laws.

Leandro Andrade, some 30 years later, received two consecutive 25 year sentences in California after stealing 9 videotapes from two different K-Mart stores in a two week period (following other convictions) and, once again, 5 members of the U.S. Supreme Court were comfortable with the application of the three strikes law.

Such historical ruminations are only timely because of a recent report in The New York Times that prisons are now overcrowded to the point where non-violent prisoners must be released for want of adequate space to house all the inmates. A few days after that report was published, a panel of federal judges in California issued a 184-page order requiring California to reduce its inmate population by 40,000 prisoners within two years. The court observed that the overcrowding resulted in the unnecessary death of one inmate per week (not, obviously, enough to solve the problem of overcrowding.) Although not attributing the overcrowding to three strikes laws, the court observed that the 750% increase in California’s prison population during the last 30 years is “the result of political decisions made over three decades, including . . . the passage of harsh mandatory minimum and three-strikes laws. . . . .”

Now would be a good time for legislators to revisit the questionable penal policies that may or may not have reduced crime in the country but have undeniably increased the prison population to intolerable levels.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer living in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at: brauchli1@comcast.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More articles by:
bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
October 22, 2019
Gary Leupp
The Kurds as U.S. Sacrificial Lambs
Robert Fisk
Trump and the Retreat of the American Empire
John Feffer
Trump’s Endless Wars
Marshall Auerback
Will the GOP Become the Party of Blue-Collar Conservatism?
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
Trump’s Fake Withdrawal From Endless War
Dean Baker
Trump Declares Victory in China Trade War
Patrick Bond
Bretton Woods Institutions’ Neoliberal Over-Reach Leaves Global Governance in the Gutter
Robert Hunziker
XR Co-Founder Discusses Climate Emergency
John W. Whitehead
Terrorized, Traumatized and Killed: The Police State’s Deadly Toll on America’s Children
Evaggelos Vallianatos
A World Partnership for Ecopolitical Health and Security
Binoy Kampmark
The Decent Protester: a Down Under Creation
Frances Madeson
Pro-Democracy Movement in Haiti Swells Despite Police Violence
Mike Garrity
Alliance for the Wild Rockies Challenges Logging and Burning Project in Methow Valley
Chelli Stanley
Change the Nation You Live In
Elliot Sperber
Humane War 
October 21, 2019
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Wolf at the Door: Adventures in Fundraising With Cockburn
Rev. William Alberts
Myopic Morality: The Rehabilitation of George W. Bush
Sheldon Richman
Let’s Make Sure the Nazis Killed in Vain
Horace G. Campbell
Chinese Revolution at 70: Twists and Turns, to What?
Jim Kavanagh
The Empire Steps Back
Ralph Nader
Where are the Influentials Who Find Trump Despicable?
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Poll Projection: Left-Leaning Jagmeet Singh to Share Power with Trudeau in Canada
Thomas Knapp
Excuses, Excuses: Now Hillary Clinton’s Attacking Her Own Party’s Candidates
Brian Terrell
The United States Air Force at Incirlik, Our National “Black Eye”
Paul Bentley
A Plea for More Cynicism, Not Less: Election Day in Canada
Walter Clemens
No Limits to Evil?
Robert Koehler
The Collusion of Church and State
Kathy Kelly
Taking Next Steps Toward Nuclear Abolition
Charlie Simmons
How the Tax System Rewards Polluters
Chuck Collins
Who is Buying Seattle? The Perils of the Luxury Real Estate Boom
Weekend Edition
October 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Anthony DiMaggio
Trump as the “Anti-War” President: on Misinformation in American Political Discourse
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Where’s the Beef With Billionaires?
Rob Urie
Capitalism and the Violence of Environmental Decline
Paul Street
Bernie in the Deep Shit: Dismal Dem Debate Reflections
Andrew Levine
What’s So Awful About Foreign Interference?
T.J. Coles
Boris Johnson’s Brexit “Betrayal”: Elect a Clown, Expect a Pie in Your Face
Joseph Natoli
Trump on the March
Ashley Smith
Stop the Normalization of Concentration Camps
Pete Dolack
The Fight to Overturn the Latest Corporate Coup at Pacifica Has Only Begun
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Russophobia at Democratic Party Debate
Chris Gilbert
Forward! A Week of Protest in Catalonia
Daniel Beaumont
Pressing Done Here: Syria, Iraq and “Informed Discussion”
Daniel Warner
Greta the Disturber
M. G. Piety
“Grim Positivism” vs. Truthiness in Biography
John Kendall Hawkins
Journey to the Unknown Interior of (You)
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail