Like any big industry, corrections is a major employer. More than 600,000 Americans work in a prison or jail - roughly the same as the number who work in the airline industry. The majority of corrections workers are guards. In California, the prison guards' union has become one of the most powerful and politically aggressive interest groups in the state. It lobbies hard for tough-on-crime laws.
A Spring Day in Sacramento
In a crowded hearing room in the state Capitol, a middle-aged woman with red hair steps to the podium.
"Thank you for this opportunity," she says. "My name is Vivian Moen and I'm from Fountain Valley, California and my son was sentenced under the Three Strikes law for simple drug possession, 25 years to life."
Vivian Moen works at a Newport Beach hotel as a hospitality coordinator. She spends a lot of her spare time as an activist with a group called Families to Amend California's Three Strikes, or FACTS. Her son, Doug Rash, is 35 and a drug addict. He got his first two strikes, for a pair of burglaries, in the 1980s.
"His first strike was taking a music keyboard from his father's house and pawning it," Moen tells the Assembly committee. "His stepmother thought that she would press charges hoping that he would get some help with his drug problem."
Strike two? A friend of Rash's had broken up with his girlfriend and wanted to retrieve his CD's from an apartment the two had shared. The friend had moved out of the apartment but still had a key. "So [Doug] went with him to the apartment to get the CD's. Her father arrived, had them arrested. Nothing was taken. That was his second strike."
Then, in 1994, Rash got caught with four tenths of a gram of cocaine in his pants pocket. Strike three. Rash is now in a state prison and he won't be free until at least 2014.
Later, on the same bright morning, on the grounds at one end of the Capitol, a band of protesters calls for changes in the Three Strikes law. They wear black t-shirts and carry signs like, 'Stop filling prisons with non-violent offenders!' They chant, "Let the time fit the crime!" They reflect a growing push in California, by ballot initiative and in the Assembly, to limit the state's Three Strikes law to violent felons.
California enacted the nation's first Three Strikes law in 1994, after several high-profile murders by repeat offenders - most explosively, the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klass by Richard Allen Davis, a repeat offender on parole at the time of the murder. The Three Strikes law allows judges to give three-time felons twenty-five years to life with no chance for parole. In the 25 other states that subsequently passed Three Strikes laws, only serious or violent felonies count as strikes. Not in California. Almost half of the state's third-strikers locked up since 1994 - more than 3,000 people - were convicted of non-violent third strikes such as drug possession, drug sales, and petty theft.
"Somebody that I love dearly has been sentenced to 25 years to life for a non-violent felony - extortion of $800," says protester Gabrielle Thompson of San Jose. Thompson has changed her mind since the early 1990s. "I voted for Three Strikes and I had no idea the implications of what I was doing. Everybody was in a frenzy. It was a very emotional issue. And I think like the rest of the general public, we assumed it was going to affect murderers, child molesters…. And it's a huge waste of our tax dollars and resources."
The opponents of Three Strikes have gotten a huge boost from recent court decisions that could affect hundreds of cases. Last fall, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Three Strikes resulted in cruel and unusual punishment in the case of Leandro Andrade. He was sentenced to fifty years in prison with no chance for parole. His third strike: stealing $150 worth of videos from Kmart. In February, the court struck down two more Three Strikes sentences for offenders convicted of petty theft, calling their sentences "grossly disproportionate."
This spring the United States Supreme Court agreed to use two of the California cases to decide whether states violate the Constitution's 8th Amendment ban on cruel or unusual punishment by using Three Strikes laws to give long sentences for minor offenses.
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