As California begins emptying prisons over the protests of voters, a powerful coalition of anti-incarceration activist groups are declaring victory over the quaint notion that people should be punished for crime:
Prison reform advocates such as Jim Lindburg, a lobbyist for the Friends Committee on Legislation, hope that the state’s first significant corrections-policy change in decades ushers in a whole new mind-set on crime. “There’s really nothing scientific or magical about the length of prison sentences,” Lindburg said. “Those are political calculations made in a political environment. It seems preposterous to me to suggest that letting people out a little bit early is going to have any kind of (negative) impact on crime rates. I think we just need to change the way we think about public safety.”
Well, actually, there’s already been at least one disturbing crime committed by one of the first men released a “bit early,” so scratch the “no negative impact” thing.
Also, there’s nothing “magical” about the length of prison sentences. To the contrary, imprisonment works in the most mundane and predictable way: it keeps non-reformable offenders away from fresh victims for a set amount of time, and schools others in the consequences of offending again.
What hubris, accusing the public of “magical thinking” because they want offenders off the streets. Why is it that those who trumpet loudest about their own peace-loving natures and non-hierarchical ways always come off as angry, insufferable elitists?
The Friends Committee on Legislation of California (FCLCA) , guided by Quaker values, advocates for California state laws that are just, compassionate and respectful of the inherent worth of every person.
Make that the inherent worth of offenders, full stop. Oh please, just do it. You know you want to. The Friends do not waste their breath or stationary advocating for the inherent worth of people who aren’t convicts, or ex-cons. Ditto all those activist nuns getting their jollies on death row. There’s no thrill in standing alongside ordinary people who fear for their safety — no thrill, and generally no microphones, either.
As the anti-incarceration movement gears up to exploit the financial crisis, expect more mass early releases and the gutting of three-strike and other recidivism laws. Consequently, alongside all the faux-Buddhist arguments about one hour in prison being the same as 100 or 1,000 days (the real magical thinking), academic cheerleaders have now exhumed that all-time sorriest argument against three strikes laws: the fake-life-for-stealing-a-slice-of-pizza guy.
Why fake? Because Jerry DeWayne Williams didn’t get life. He didn’t serve 25 years under three strikes. His sentence, like the sentences of 25% to 45% of the offenders who qualify for three-strikes, was downgraded to a “second-strike” offense . . . because judges and prosecutors have that discretion and use it every day.
Here is professor Jennifer Walsh, writing in late 2002:
[S]tatistics indicate that discretion in three strike cases is invoked frequently and consistently. A 1998 survey of California District Attorneys revealed that prosecutors in urban jurisdictions use discretion in approximately 20-40 percent of eligible cases [now higher] . . . An evaluation of judicial discretion exercised in San Diego County found that judges exercised discretion in 29 percent of eligible three strike cases. They were also 100 percent more likely to use discretion if the triggering offense was minor. Moreover, judges were more likely to strike a prior strike if the defendant had no history of violence and no history of weapons possession or weapons use. Perhaps most reassuring is the data that shows that in San Diego County, over half of the initial third strike filings that involved a minor third strike offense were later downgraded to second strike offenses. This exercise of discretion by prosecutors and judges prevented these defendants from receiving the enhanced sentence when they were perceived as undeserving. Findings like these confirm that the judicious exercise of discretion under the California three strikes law creates a safeguard for defendants who are technically eligible for the mandatory sentence, but whose past and present conduct is considered to be outside the spirit of the law.
Read that paragraph carefully, because you’re not going to see it in the news, where reporters simply cut and paste rhetoric from various activist groups, wildly misrepresenting the law itself. Professor Walsh notes that those subjected to California’s three-strikes law generally had violent or serious crimes as their third offense:
State statistics indicate that the third strikers in prison include 294 for murder; 34 for manslaughter; 1,408 for robbery; 356 for assault with a deadly weapon; 416 for other assaults or battery; 136 for rape; 241 for lewd act upon a child; 136 for other sex offenses; 83 for kidnapping; 776 for residential burglary; 288 for possession of drugs for sale; 191 for sale of drugs, 28 for manufacturing drugs; 356 for weapons-possession; and 25 for arson.
First and second offenses must be for serious or violent felonies to trigger the enhancement, another little-noted fact.
But facts simply don’t matter to the activists. If facts mattered to them, they wouldn’t be holding up Jerry DeWayne Williams as an example of a person who was sent away for 25 years for stealing a piece of pizza, because he wasn’t.
And it’s very much worth asking why criminologists and reporters cling so eagerly to this one story, repeating it endlessly when it is not true in the first place and is also decades old now: can’t they produce a better tale of woe?
But it gets worse.
This week, the Los Angeles Times ran a bizarre feature on Jerry DeWayne Williams. The gist is that Williams is a victim of three-strikes even though he was not subjected to it. It is apparently enough that the law exists for Williams to continue to feel victimized by it. The reporter calls this serving a “life sentence” of having to abide by the law:
“I walk on eggshells,” [Williams] said. “Any little thing that I do, I could be back for the rest of my life.”
Strangely, however, not even that claim holds up under scrutiny. Williams has received lenience repeatedly since the pizza incident, a fact that neither he nor the reporter seem to view as a contradiction of his profound feeling of victimization. One of his subsequent crimes was even a threat of violence:
in September 2003, his girlfriend called 911 and reported that Williams was verbally abusing her. A police officer arrived to find Williams moving out after a fight and demanding $150 he had paid toward the bills. As the officer looked on, Williams told his girlfriend: “I’m going to put a bullet in your ass if I don’t get my money.”
A prosecutor and a judge let him off:
Williams, who was unarmed, was arrested and charged with making a criminal threat, a felony that could have landed him back in prison for life. But Kings County prosecutors did not treat the crime as a third strike. Williams pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and was released from jail after 17 days.
And then he immediately broke the terms of his probation upon leaving prison, again with no consequences:
As part of his sentence, he was barred from leaving Kings County without permission. Nevertheless, Williams moved to Moreno Valley to live with another sister. An arrest warrant was issued and remains active.
And then again:
Since landing in Moreno Valley, he has been arrested once — for being drunk in public — but was released without charges being filed.
How on earth does the reporter square such facts with his depiction of Williams as a desperate, haunted man peering nervously over his shoulder, terrified of the slightest slip-up? He was not afraid to violate his probation. Twice. He was not afraid to threaten to murder someone — in front of a policeman. He doesn’t sound particularly frightened at all. He sounds as if he knows that he can avail himself of a passel of silk-stockinged civil liberties attorneys any time a knucklehead cop dares to take him in for attacking a woman, or some other offense.
He sounds as if he knows that his notoriety has placed him above the law.
In one of the many courtrooms, Williams has been sentenced in, a prosecutor “unfurled a computer printout of Williams’ criminal history that extended from his outstretched arm to the floor,” and yet Williams is not behind bars. Considering the gang and drug activities that consumed his earlier years, the threat of three-strikes has probably saved his life, but he is far too busy whining to be grateful.
What the criminologists and the activists will not admit, will not acknowledge, let alone discuss, is this: for every Jerry DeWayne Williams, there is a John Floyd Thomas, arrested repeatedly in California over the span of more than two decades for sex crimes and burglaries but released repeatedly, to rape and (now we know) kill again.
Jerry DeWayne Williams may owe his life to the three strikes law, but it did not arrive in time to save the lives of the thirty women in Los Angeles Thomas is now suspected of raping and strangling.
Thirty murdered women.
Funny, you never hear Quakers (or most criminologists) talking about that.
To read more factual material about California’s three-strikes law, go to the Three Strikes and You’re Out: Stop Repeat Offenders website. Rather than trumped-up anecdotes and accusations of fascism, you’ll find data on California’s three-strikes offenders, statistics on use of judicial discretion, examples of dangerous offenders who would have been out of prison, but for the law, and studies evaluating the effect of the law on California’s crime rate.