Striking Out

If politicians were only politicians—if all they created were bombast, spin, and strange bedfellows—they might be moderately tolerable. The way any varmint is tolerable. You begrudgingly accept their existence, with the understanding that they will be a nuisance but do limited harm. Sort of like cockroaches, only less attractive. And harder to squash.

Anyway, politicians are not simply politicians; they are also legislators. They create laws. In most, if not all, cases, these laws are crafted in a way that gives undue weight to political interests. The interests of you and me take a backseat. And we all know what happens in the backseat. People get screwed.

Those who are less fortunate—who lack the economic, social, or even psychological resources to gain access to the driver’s seat—tend to get screwed the most by laws borne of political expedience. Consider the various three-strikes laws that were enacted in the 1990’s to address criminal recidivism. Perpetrators who committed a third offense were subject to lengthy mandatory sentences, up to and including life in prison. The supposed bad guys got put away, and the politicians got to demonstrate that they were tough on crime and possessed cojones as large as their egos. A win/win situation, right?

Wrong. Judges lost the latitude to judge, correctional costs skyrocketed, and many petty criminals were treated like the second coming of Al Capone. One such offender was Norman Williams of California:

Williams, who is 46, was a homeless drug addict in 1997 when he was convicted of petty theft, for stealing a floor jack from a tow truck. It was the last step on his path to serving life. In 1982, Williams burglarized an apartment that was being fumigated: he was hapless enough to be robbed at gunpoint on his way out, and later he helped the police recover the stolen property. In 1992, he stole two hand drills and some other tools from an art studio attached to a house; the owner confronted him, and he dropped everything and fled. Still, for the theft of the floor jack, Williams was sentenced to life in prison under California’s repeat-offender law: three strikes and you’re out. [link]

Williams’ story is detailed in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine. Like many caught up in the legal system, he stumbled out of the starting gate. “The 8th of 12 children, Williams grew up with a mother who was a binge drinker. She pimped out Williams and his brothers to men she knew. A social worker wrote, ‘These men paid the boys money to perform anal intercourse on the boys and they . . . gave the money to their mother for wine.’ As an adult, Williams became a cocaine addict and lived on the streets of Long Beach.” In short, he never had much of a chance. He was first exploited by his mother and later exploited by politicians, who made hay by making him (and others like him) pay.

In 2003, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court effectively upheld California’s three-strikes law, ruling that it did not violate the 8th amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Despite the high court’s imprimatur, some in the business of enforcing the law recognized it’s inherent unfairness. Interestingly, as the New York Times reports, this included Steve Cooley, the district attorney for Los Angeles County and a Republican career prosecutor:

After three strikes became law, Cooley watched one of his colleagues in the D.A.’s office prosecute Gregory Taylor, a homeless man who at dawn one morning in 1997 went to a church where he’d often gotten meals and pried open the door to its food pantry. The priest later testified on his behalf. Taylor’s first crime was a purse-snatching; his second was attempting to steal a wallet. He didn’t hurt anyone. Taylor was sentenced to life. “It was almost one-upmanship, almost a game — bye-bye for life,” Cooley says, remembering the attitude in the office.

Three years later, Cooley ran for D.A. on a platform of restrained three-strikes enforcement, calling the law “a necessary weapon, one that must be used with precision and not in a scatter-gun fashion.” In office, he turned his critique into policy. The L.A. district attorney’s office no longer seeks life sentences for offenders like Norman Williams or Gregory Taylor. The presumption is that prosecutors ask for a life sentence only if a third-strike crime is violent or serious. Petty thieves and most drug offenders are presumed to merit a double sentence, the penalty for a second strike, unless their previous record includes a hard-core crime like murder, armed robbery, sexual assault or possession of large quantities of drugs. During Cooley’s first year in office, three-strikes convictions in Los Angeles County triggering life sentences dropped 39 percent. No other prosecutor’s office in California has a written policy like Cooley’s, though a couple of D.A.’s informally exercise similar discretion.

It’s a mistake, though, to cast Cooley as a full-tilt reformer. He opposed Prop 66 for ignoring a defendant’s criminal history. Instead, in 2006, he offered up his own bill, which tracked his policy as D.A., taking minor drug crimes and petty theft off the list of three-strikes offenses unless one of the first two strikes involved a crime that Cooley considers hard-core. For staking out even this middle ground, Cooley became prosecutor non grata among his fellow D.A.’s. No district attorney, not even the most liberal, supported his bill, and it died in Senate committee.

Cooley could once again pay a price for his three-strikes record. This spring, he announced his candidacy for California attorney general. His Republican rivals have hammered him for his moderate stance. “He’s acting as an enabler for habitual offenders,” State Senator Tom Harman told me. “I think that’s wrong. I want to put them in prison.” The race has developed into a litmus test: for 15 years, no serious candidate for major statewide office has dared to criticize three strikes. If Cooley makes it through his party’s primary on June 8 — and especially if he goes on to win in November — the law will no longer seem untouchable. If he loses, three strikes will be all the more difficult to dislodge. [link]

The political gamesmanship playing out in California is playing out nationwide. Reactionary elements seeking to gain or maintain power and influence are dueling with more moderate and progressive elements, which similarly hope to gain or maintain power and influence but also seek the restoration of fairness and common sense. It’s anyone’s guess which side will prevail. The tea (party) leaves are difficult to read.

For now, those of us who yearn and strive for a more just and equitable society, where sensible governance takes the wheel and politics takes its rightful place in the backseat, can only hope for the best and keep fighting the good fight. Perhaps, one day, we will strike out on the right road, in the right direction.

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One response

  1. I haven’t heard the phrase, ‘zero tolerance’ lately. Too much embarrassment maybe. As a taxpayer I care a lot about crime, but I don’t want to pay to incarcerate anyone who is not a real threat to public safety. I would hope other punishments could be found.

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