petty crimes

Vote YES on Prop 36: Amend the Three Strikes Law

America's prison problem (Great VIDEO)

Why does the US put so many people behind bars and what lies behind California's new push for leniency?

last Modified: 01 Nov 2012 14:40

By filmmakers Michael Montgomery and Monica Lam

The US locks up more people than any other country in the world, spending over $80billion each year to keep some two million prisoners behind bars. Over the past three decades, tough sentencing laws have contributed to a doubling of the country's prison population, with laws commonly known as 'three strikes and you're out' mandating life sentences for a wide range of crimes.

But a clear sign that Americans are rethinking crime and punishment is a voter's initiative on California's November ballot called Proposition 36 that seeks to reform the state's three-strikes law. Some 27 states have three-strikes laws patterned after California's version, which was one of the first to be enacted in the country.

Since it was passed in 1994, nearly 9,000 felons have been convicted in California under the law.

One of them is Norman Williams, a 49-year-old African-American man who was a crack addict living on the streets. He was convicted of burglarising an empty home and later stealing an armload of tools from an art studio. His third strike: filching a jack from a tow truck in Long Beach. His fate sealed under California's three-strikes law, Williams was sent to a maximum security prison [for a life sentence] alongside murderers, rapists and other violent criminals.

"I never wanted to do my whole life in prison. Nobody wants to be caged like that," Williams says.

Williams was lucky. After 13 years behind bars, his case was reviewed by a judge and he was released. He is one of about two dozen 'three strikers' who have won sentence reductions through the work of a Stanford University law clinic founded by Michael Romano. In Williams' case, the prosecutor actually agreed that the original sentence was too harsh. An idea emerged from Romano's work: Why not draft a ballot initiative to ensure that sentences like Williams' will not be repeated?

"When people originally passed the three-strikes law in 1994 the campaigns were about keeping serious and violent murderers, child molesters in prison for the rest of their lives," Romano says. "I think that's what people want and are kind of shocked to hear that people have been sentenced to life for petty theft."

13 Reasons to Shut Down California SHUs*

1. SHUs don’t work.

Rates of gang activity, yard violence, illegal drug sales and assaults on staff are increasing in California, while decreasing in other states. Maryland has recently closed its SHU.

2. SHUs add violence to the prison system.

The psychologically brutal and degrading conditions of long term SHU confinement encourages violence and harassment by guards and enrages inmates.

3. SHUs cause short, medium, and long term psychological breakdown and social deterioration.

SHU inmates have no physical contact with anyone for years on end and rarely are able to talk to anyone else in the prison.

4. SHUs do not serve public safety.

Inmates are often released directly from the SHU to the general public without skills that would help them survive. They are thus often less well equipped than nonSHU inmates to function in society. Staff working in SHU units have higher rates of drug use, family breakdown, and spouse/child abuse.