Vote Yes on Three-Strikes Reform: A Prisoner Speaks Out

Californians this November will have the opportunity to Vote Yes on 36, a ballot measure that would reform the infamous three-strikes sentencing law. The law was sold to the public in the 1990s as a way to keep incorrigible sex offenders behind bars, but in actuality, any petty offense may be the third crime that triggers the life sentence, resulting in many individual miscarriages of justice as well as toxic prison overcrowding.

In the October/November newsletter of Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes (FACTS), prisoner Kenneth G. Keel offers a detailed overview of the law’s history and tragic consequences. Representing himself at trial, Keel was sentenced to 25-to-life for a petty theft from K-Mart. In prison, he has earned a GED and completed an accredited paralegal studies program, and currently provides free legal assistance and literacy tutoring to other inmates. An excerpt:

California’s “Three Strikes and You’re Out sentencing law” (3-Strikes) was passed by the Legislature (AB-971) and voters (Prop. 184) in 1994. The Yes on Prop 184 campaign, mostly funded by the prison guards union (CCPOA), exploited the high-profile abduction, sexual assault, and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klass (RIP) from Petaluma to advertise and market their initative. The Public’s outrage, hoping to eradicate child molesters, rapists and murderers led to an overwhelming majority (72) voting for Prop. 184.

Ironically, many people still do not realize that predators who pose the greatest danger to society get preferential treatment because they are not sentenced under 3-Strikes. For instance, this author’s non-violent petty theft with a prior was “doubled-counted” to transform the misdemeanor into a felony, and then used as the basis for a life sentence. On the other hand, when petty theft is committed after prior convictions for heinous crimes, including child molestation, kidnapping, rape, torture, mayhem, murder and terrorism, then the petty theft can only be charged as a misdemeanor, and cannot trigger any 3-Strikes enhancements. So, for example, if this author’s prior convictions had been for kidnapping, child molestation, and murder, instead of non-injury robberies, then he could not have been sentenced to 25-years-to-life for petty theft. Rather, only probation or a maximum 12-month county jail sentence would have been possible.

Also unknown to many voters, 3-Strikes is applied in an arbitrary and inconsistent manner among different counties and within counties. For example, when this author was sentenced, the District Attorney (DA) sought life sentences in most “Third Strike” cases. Two years later, a different DA was elected and L.A. County’s 3-Strikes policy was greatly changed. Thus, if this author would have been sentenced in 2000-2012, instead of 1998, he would not have received 25-years-to-life for his non-violent property crime.

At the same time, 3-Strikes has disproportionately targeted the poor and people of color.
More than 70 of the 3-Strikes prisoners serving life sentences are either African-American or Latino…

The unintended and costly consequences of 3-Strikes are enormous! These are a few examples: only the 2 prior convictions (strikes) need to be serious or violent; misdemeanor conduct (wobblers) can trigger a third-strike; plea agreements made 1-50 years before 3-strikes was enacted count as strikes; some juvenile offenses count as strikes; many out-of-state cases are strikes; all Three Strikers must serve 100% of their sentences and 80% of all consecutive enhancements; the warehousing of thousands of non-violent 3-strike inmates has, in part, been the cause of severe prison overcrowding in the California prison system; the U.S. Supreme Court has recently ruled that California’s overcrowded prisons contributed to one inmate death a week; the State Bureau of Audits has estimated that the additional years 3-Strikes prisoners are serving will cost California tax payers $19.2 billon dollars; and various criminologists have found that 3-Strikes does not protect public safety as advertised…

On November 6th California residents will have another opportunity to amend 3-Strikes.
Prop. 36, which is more conservative than Prop. 66 was, pledges to close the loophole and “restore the original intent of California’s Three Strikes law–imposing life sentences for dangerous criminals like rapists, murderers, and child molesters.” If approved by the voters, only about 3,000 out of 8,800 imnates now serving life sentences for non-serious, non-violent, and non-sexual offenses will be eligible to apply for re-sentence consideration. Re-sentencing is not available for felons serving life for a “non-serious, non-violent third strike, if the prior convictions were rape, murder, or child molestation.” On a case-by-case basis, a judge must determine that re-sentencing would not pose an unreasonable risk to public safety.
Prop. 36 is supported by a bipartisan group of law enforcement leaders, prosecutors, civil rights organizations, etc. It was drafted by attorneys at Stanford Law School and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, in consultation with law enforcement officers. In an interview, David W. Mills, a Stanford Law School professor and private investment manager, stated that his interest in 3:-Strikes is based upon his long-term interest in civil rights. Professor Mills said, that the “dramatic effect on poor people and African-Americans” makes 3-Strikes one of the leading civil rights issues of today. (Sacramento Bee, August 22,2012, Page All.)

While only my California readers can vote on 36, anyone can donate to FACTS to support their courageous work in defense of the unfairly incarcerated. California’s example is also worth studying if your state has or is considering a three-strikes law. Massachusetts readers, please contact your representatives to oppose the three-strikes proposal that has been debated in the legislature this year.

New Poem by Conway: “J Cat”

I sent my prison pen pal “Conway” a copy of an article I blogged about this summer, concerning psychosis-inducing conditions at America’s supermax prisons. This poem was his response. In prison slang, “J Cat (derived from “Category J” in the California Penal Code) refers to an inmate who is deemed too mentally ill to be housed with the general population.

My understanding is that this is a persona poem; from the tenor of his letters, Conway is not suicidal, but determinedly working on his personal growth and maintaining good relationships with his children and grandchildren on the outside.

California readers, you can help bring their day of reunion closer by voting Yes on 36, the Three-Strikes Reform Act.

J Cat

Even if you find your mind waking in a padded room,
    Don’t panic!
realize comfort, that it’s not this concrete tomb.
Your friends (in your head) it is said
might share a little love (even if they’re dead)
When the shit goes down, then the goon squad shows up
because of the camera in the ceiling (on the fritz)
paranoia trumpets ill feeling as the comedown side of high
starts shaking behind your eye, shaking all reasons to try
Even if nothing seems zen…

Padded rooms, “they say” are there to comfort the wall
from our fall, crash of bones, attempting to take a leap or
creep out of this dimension, false skin.
Concrete tombs transform toilets to despair, but
they never claimed to be soft, or a silent sensitivity
like a razor blade’s slash.

Even if the edge slid gently across the track
like a Hotwheel zipping around orange loop-d-loops.
The exit burns while the entrance yearns for another track,
another quick trip around the wrist.

Even if you find your mind twisted in a padded tomb
and find yourself listening to those hide-n-seek friends, whom
no-one else can see or hear, not even the broken mirror.
It won’t matter, until you’re in a courtroom, hobbled
like a steer, with a lawyer whispering in your ear.
That’s when, that’s the time those sneaky voices scream.
Where did this radio come from? Why?
I try to find the plug, a battery box, the off switch.
One more blade, I pray. One more slice, than things
will get better, things will get good. Then I’ll be gladder.
None of this will matter…

Poetry by Amberle L. Husbands: “You Heard What?”

Apologies for the blog hiatus, loyal readers. It’s been a busy month at Winning Writers and I had some tech support issues. For your reading pleasure, here is a memorable poem by Amberle L. Husbands of Georgia, winner of first prize in the adult category of the Spring 2012 Odes to the Olympians Poetry Contest (theme: Ares/Mars, the God of War). This free contest is sponsored by Victoria Grossack and Alice Underwood, authors of The Tapestry of Bronze series of historical novels about ancient Greece. The current contest, seeking poems about Venus/Aphrodite, is open through November 30. Thanks to Amberle and Victoria for permission to reprint here.

“You Heard What?”

Ares is dead?
I don’t believe it.
Not in these modern days.
Just yesterday, I swear,
I saw his face going down into the subway.

Or outside some church in Lebanon,
eating ice cream on the steps of the Pantheon,
his mouth Cherry Garcia red–thinking of something dire.

Ares is sketched as bloodthirsty,
written in as the ne’er do well
likely to appear at any time;
distinct from all the races, but he’s everybody’s friend.

Ares is still in business, keeping all the stray dogs fat,
and so is the hateful guru, with his basement napalm lab.

Ares is one who revolves,
strolls from the pent house down Pauper’s Lane.
The insane, and the beaten, all know his shadow,
they know that peace is fleeting,
and they know when to go underground.

Ares is dead?
I don’t believe it.
I saw him just now, down at the Hinge for a beer.
Had a whole crowd with him,
men in suits, wearing gold chains, heavy boots;
Ares dead? Think again, friend–
Think twice and fear–
Ares is here