People & Power

America’s prison problem

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

By filmmakers Michael Montgomery and Monica Lam, The Center for Investigative Reporting

The US locks up more people than any other country in the world, spending over $80bn 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 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.”

Romano helped write Proposition 36, which would amend Californian law so felons could be sentenced to life only if their third strike is a serious or violent crime. Current ‘three strikers’ could appeal their sentences if their last conviction was non-serious and non-violent. However, the three-strikes law could still apply to felons whose third strike is a minor crime if their past strikes include violence, or what many call “super strikes” like murder, rape and child molestation.

Adam Gelb, the director of the Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project, says the proposition could be a bellwether for crime policies across the US.

“California’s three-strikes law really stands out,” he says. “If it’s changed it will definitely send a dramatic signal to policy makers across the country that it is a new day.”

‘Hope for strikers’

Opponents of the initiative argue that the current three-strikes law works well, and has contributed to a dramatic fall in violent crime over the past two decades.

“We want to remove the worst offenders from society for the sake of our communities,” says Carl Adams, the head of the California District Attorneys Association. “And we want to do it no matter what it costs and we want to do it no matter what the impact on the prison population.”

Opponents also say prosecutors today are using the current law judiciously, pointing out that more than 80 per cent of ‘three strikers’ were sentenced prior to 2000. Changing the law, they say, would remove an important tool from the prosecutorial toolbox.

“I don’t know why anybody would want to fix something that doesn’t require fixing,” says Marc Klaas, one of the state’s fiercest defenders of the current three-strikes law. Klaas led the charge to pass tough, mandatory sentencing laws after his 12-year-old daughter Polly was raped and murdered by a career criminal in 1993. “It’s really about preventing future victimisations,” Klaas says.

But critics of the current law say the net is cast too widely. At San Quentin State Prison near San Francisco, some inmates convicted under third strikes have formed a self-help group called ‘Hope for Strikers’. Some of the men here even voted for the original three-strikes law.

Joey Mason lived in Polly Klaas’ hometown and remembers the uproar surrounding her murder.

“It devastated a lot of people,” he says.

Mason was later convicted of burglary when he relapsed into drug addiction and is now serving a life sentence. Most of the men in the group say they are here for non-violent crimes, like Eddie Griffin, who was sentenced to 27-years-to-life for possession of cocaine, or Forrest Lee Jones, who caught a third strike when he stole a VCR.

“I never believed that three-strikes was going to go after us men,” says Mason.

Indeed, an analysis of state data by the Center for Investigative Reporting in collaboration with the San Francisco Chronicle found that ‘three strikers’ are not more prone to violence than other inmates. Instead, they have a higher risk of drug and substance abuse problems.

Behind bars: Prison conditions

Activists who are campaigning to change the three-strikes law in California are also trying to raise awareness about conditions inside prisons. They are targeting the use of special security units at maximum security prisons like Pelican Bay State Prison. A recent report by Amnesty International condemned the long-term use of these special units, equating them to solitary confinement.

“Pelican Bay is a vivid example of a criminal justice system at its most extreme,” says Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of Amnesty International USA.

Corrections officials defend their use of the special units, saying they are necessary to segregate some of the state’s most dangerous criminals – powerful gang members and violent inmates.

“The design is based on providing the maximum amount of security in housing these men separate from our general population and it provides for the safety of my staff, which is paramount,” says Pelican Bay warden Greg Lewis.

But national scrutiny is being aimed at the stark conditions inside Pelican Bay and other so-called supermax prisons. In June, US Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois called for a hearing on the use of solitary confinement.

“We as American citizens are driving other American citizens out of their minds,” testified Anthony Graves, a former Texas death row inmate who was exonerated after 18 years. For 10 of those years, Graves was held in isolation.

“No one can begin to imagine the psychological effects isolation has on another human being,” he says.

Durbin says Americans are ready to rethink the costs of ‘tough on crime’ policies – both the human and financial costs. “There are things we can do that sound tough that are a waste of money and lead America down a path that we don’t want to go down,” he says.

The cost of incarceration

As election day approaches, the campaign to change California’s three-strikes law is focusing its message on the burden to taxpayers.

In a TV ad, district attorneys from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties endorse Proposition 36, saying: “Save millions of dollars, instead of wasting millions on non-violent offenders.”

The Yes-on-36-campaign has gathered support from across the political spectrum, including conservative watchdog Grover Norquist and religious conservatives like Pat Nolan.

Even if California voters decide to amend the three-strikes law, only a few thousand inmates would qualify to have their sentences reduced. Still, the change would send an important signal to the rest of the country, says Adam Gelb.

“California started this trend, as it starts so many trends,” says Gelb. “What’s happening in California now is going to resonate loudly across the country in terms of criminal justice policy for years to come.”


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