A False Economy

Voice Card  -  Volume 32  -  John Card Number 12  -  Mon, Jul 18, 1994 1:51 AM

This is ONE OF 2 responses to VC 32 Drury 14 ("The scared public")...


I am also fed up with violent criminals and understand your temptation to lock them up and throw away the key. But I think this three strikes law is not the right approach. Roger raises several valid arguments against it in his card and there are many other objections as well.

But I especially disagree with your statement that "It is probably cheaper to lock these people away for life than try to "help" them (what a laugh) or let them wreck someone else's life again."

Whatever else you may think about the wisdom of mandatory sentencing, it seems increasingly clear that not only will this law NOT be cheaper for society, it will be very expensive. I'm not talking expensive in terms of bad karma (although I think referring to human beings as disposable trash and scoffing at *any* attempt to help them is very bad karma indeed). I'm talking expensive in terms of money. Cash. Taxes.

The three strikes law has the unfortunate side-effect of greatly increasing the number of expensive jury trials. The way the current law is written, a lot of relatively petty criminals suddenly find themselves looking at life in prison for stealing a sixpack or smoking a joint. Are they going to forfeit their right to an expensive trial?

Take, for example, the recent case of a guy who was serving 120 days for petty theft (his first conviction). He was caught smoking a joint in jail. Guess what? Possession of any quantity of Marijauna is a felony in California. Strike Two. And possession of drug paraphanalia (in this case, rolling paper for the joint) is also a felony. Strike Three. The current three strikes law dictates a minimum of fifteen years with no parole in this case. This guy also happens to be the sole support of an infant daughter: too bad! I am not condoning his actions, but a minimum of fifteen years for smoking a joint seems cruel and stupid. The judge in the case has refused to follow the law and it will now be argued perhaps up to the supreme court - at considerable taxpayer expense.

As for all the new prisons it will take to hold these throwaway people, you postulate that taxpayers will be "more than willing to shoulder another tax to build more prisons." I beg to differ. Our prisons have been overflowing for years now and I have yet to see any tax protestors shouting "RAISE MY TAXES!" Many people love prisons, but not in their own backyard and not with their own hard-earned money.

I agree that there are some people who belong in prison and should stay there for a long, long time. But attacking complex problems with simplitistic, broad-brush, easy-fix solutions is almost always far more expensive than anyone bargains for.