Members of Families To Amend California's Three Strikes (FACTS) are making their way back up to Sacramento March 28 to speak with state legislators about changing Three Strikes into a more fair, reasonable and effective law. The group, made up of "strikers," family members, community leaders, students and "anyone else who wants to see and end to the atrocious law," has been fighting Three Strikes since it passed in 1994. Despite the fact that all of their proposals have failed so far, group members said they are not giving up and are developing a plan for the 2008 elections.
"Our goal is to see that the Three Strikes law is applied to violent offenses and not the little petty things that they (lawmakers) are using it for," said FACTS member Freddie Lawson whose son is currently serving 25 years to life in San Quentin under Three Strikes.
Lawson's son Derek was sentenced in 1998. He is addicted to drugs and was convicted of attempted burglary after being caught trying to steal items he could sell to support his habit. She doesn't deny the fact that he needed to be punished she said but believes what he got was excessive.
"He should be punished," Lawson said.
"I think that they should have programs like a repayment system where they would make people who steal pay back what they owe. I don't think that a person should be buried alive for something like an illness. A person who has a mental illness should be in a hospital.
"My son has never hurt anybody," she added. "He got 25 years for something he should have done two years for."
Widespread support for Three Strikes began with Fresno resident Mike Reynolds whose daughter was violently murdered in 1992 by someone who was attempting to mug her. It began to pick up momentum the next year when 12-year-old Polly Klaas was taken from her home and murdered. Klaas' murderer, Richard Allen Davis, was convicted twice before of kidnapping and had been on parole after serving only half of a 16-year prison term for the second kidnapping.
Supporters say the law has been responsible for a significant drop in the state's violent crime rate since the early nineties.
"[Three Strikes] supporters really need to stop brainwashing people into thinking that we're all in danger if we get rid of the law," said Lawson.
"People need to get smart and read the actual law. It's not about violent people getting out of prison. Some violent people get out anyway because they're not sentenced under Three Strikes."
Currently the law states that a person committing a felony after March 7, 1994 who has one previous "violent" or "serious" felony conviction (which includes burglary of an unoccupied dwelling), is sentenced to twice the term prescribed by law for each new felony and must serve at least 80 percent of the sentence. If the person has two previous violent or serious felony convictions, he or she is sentenced to a life sentence with the possibility of parole. The minimum term of the life sentence is calculated as the greater of either three times the term otherwise provided, 25 years or a term determined by the court according to other sentencing provisions in the case.
At its inception, Three Strikes garnered much criticism especially from minorities and the poor who predicted back then that it would be unfairly applied toward them. Today, statistics show that African Americans make up seven percent of the California population but over 31 percent of the California prison population and 44 percent of the Third Striker population. Seventy one percent of the Third Striker population in prison is either African American or Latino. Take the case of Forrest Lee Jones who was sentenced to 25 to life in 1995 for stealing a VCR from a home. Jones was also addicted to drugs.
The victim, according to FACTS, said she initially felt angry and violated upon discovering that she had been robbed but admitted later to feeling sorry for Jones who would "do a lot of time for stealing a VCR."
"She stated that it was too bad the Court couldn't get the defendant help for his drug problem so he doesn't burglarize anyone else in the future," wrote a FACTS spokesperson.
Rene Landa a Hispanic male was convicted in 1995 of stealing a spare tire, a petty theft with prior it's called, and sentenced to 27 to life. His priors involved residential burglary due to a drug habit.
"My case in its entirety was a set up," said Landa.
" Starting from arresting officer to the end. I was literally run over by the injustices of the system. First of all my original arrest was under the influence of drugs, and a parole hold. I agreed to drug test, which apparently came back clean. And I was not on parole.
"An hour after my arrest, they rolled in a tire and said I stole it. I immediately knew I was doomed because the victim happened to be a sheriff working at Huntington Park courthouse who mysteriously found a tire. The jury was definitely not of my peers . . . As a result 27 – life."
Landa's, Jones' and other stories can be found on FACTS' website under their "Top 150 Unjust 3-Strike Stories."
"When a person is in for life they don't get any rehabilitation," Lawson said, adding that the huge amounts of money spent to house some non-violent prisoners could be better spent on prevention programs.
It costs about $437,000 per year to house one inmate.
"Do you know how wasteful that is," Lawson said.
"It covers basic costs like bed and meals. They don't even get nutritional meals. They get a bunch of sandwiches… things like that."
What's worse she added is inmates still have to pay their own money for toiletries.
"You have to go through [prison] vendors to send a [care] package. I could choose better things for him than they have. But it's all about dollars.
"Those prison guards make more than a person would make who has a college degree. They make about $100,000 per year or something like that. That's unbelievable.
"Bars are not the answer for everything. We want safe communities for everyone… I mean my house has been broken into. But, I don't want anybody to spend the rest of their life in prison for it," she said.
For more information visit www.facts1.com.