Why It's Time to Repeal Colorado's "Three Strikes" Law
Like many, prehaps most, prisoners Caveman is not too bright. He has other virtues, among them a great sense of humour and that is important when you find yourself serving life in prison. Caveman didn't rape or kill anybody. He is instead one of a large number of non-violent offenders to be serving a life sentence as a habitual offender in Colorado's state prison system. He says it happened like this. Like many, probably most, prisoners Caveman has a drug problem. In his case with meth. Because meth is expensive, Caveman has sold a lot of it over the course of his life. He never became a big drug dealer but he managed somehow to pay for his dope habit. He also managed to get himself arrested, repeatedly, and go to prison, repeatedly. The last time Caveman was out of prison he decided he was going to make the stuff himself. Other prisoners had told him how easy it was to make meth on your stovetop and he resolved to do just that. Did I mention that Caveman isn't too bright? He must have forgot one of the steps in the receipe, or something, because Caveman, much as he wanted to, did not make meth on his stovetop. He made fire. Of course he tried to put it out. But he didn't have a fire extinguisher, and when he threw water on the blaze he created on the stovetop it just got bigger. Maybe if he'd made it to highschool he would have known not to throw water on a chemical fire, but he hadn't and so he did. So instead of making meth on his stovetop Caveman burned down his landlords house.
Because this wasn't his first rodeo Caveman was charged as a habitual offender. Even if he had not been so charged he would have faced a potential life sentence for arson and manufacture. Those are serious charges in any case. But because Caveman was charged as a habitual offender he faced a mandatory life sentence. That is because Colorado's habitual offender statue, or as it is more commonly known the "three strikes law", mandates a term of incarceration four times the maximum of the statutory range. In Caveman's case that meant 200 years. Now not to many of would like to have to flee our homes in the middle of the night because some idiot neihbor tried to make dope in his kitchen and had it literaly blow up on his stovetop. Most folks would probablly feel Caveman earned himself a bunk at the penitentiary for his what he did, and I wouldn't argue with them about it. But 200 years? The grim reality is that the bunks at the penitentiary are overwhelmingly filled with men more or less like Caveman. Most of them commited crimes which I suspect most folks would agree deserved getting sent to prison over. There are more than a few guys though, like my one former cellie Serna. He got 24 years for shoplifting meat at a supermarket. At the time Serna was sentenced the statue read that anything over $300 constituted felony shoplifting, the next year it was amended to $1,000. Unfortunately the law wasn't retroactive so Serna will spend decades in prison for a crime that now carries a statutory maximum of 1 year, and is no longer even a felony. That is sad. Especially as he is past 50 already and doubts he'll live through the sentence. My impression though is Serna is the exception and that DA's, in Colorado at least, mostly charge people as habitual offenders who are facing substantial charges, have a substantial prior record (often including more than two prior felony convictions), or both. Despite that the "three strikes" law has filled Colorado's prisons with non-violent offenders serving what are in effect life sentences.
Prior to 1994 when Colorado, and a number of other states, enacted the "three strikes" law judges had wide discretion in sentencing. What governed how long a person was incarcerated for a given offense was the statutory range set forth the law itself. The statutory range for felony offenses was broad, and hence allowed judges who had heard the actual case to weigh the various mitigating or aggravating factors as well as the offender's previous record before imposing sentence. If a prisoner felt the sentence imposed was unduly harsh or disproportionate he could ask a higher court for reconsideration of the sentence without disputing his guilt. The appeals court could commute the sentence if they saw fit to do so, or not. The habitual offender statue took that authority away from the courts and established a mandatory sentence of four times the statutory range. Once a DA charges someone as a habitual offender, unless they're found not guilty in the case, no other mitigating factors matter in their sentencing except whether or not they were previously convicted in at least two other felony cases. It doesn't matter how long ago they were, if they were for the same kind of offense, or where they occured. So one marijuanna grower, who was 54 years old when he was arrested for cultivation, was facing prosecution as a habitual offender despite the fact that his two prior felonies, stealing a car when he was 18 and escape without force for walking away from the youth detention facility he was sent to, occured 35 years ago and this was his first case since then. Most often though what the men I saw serving life sentences under the "three strikes" law were addicts, most of them poor, who either were stealing or dealing drugs.
Despite falling crime rates the budget for the Department of Corrections continues to grow. To some this is evidence of the success of the "get tough" approach to crime that has led the US to incarcerate five times as many of its own people as any other nation, and to imprison its people eight times longer. However, rising crime rates would simply lead these same people to call for even more incarceration. We seldom here of the feasibility of expanded employment or educational opportunities as a means of crime prevention. Corporate media rarely discuss the racial disparities of a system that incarcerates 1 in 3 African-Americans and 1 in 6 Chicanos. The fact is that legislators accross the US who are unwilling to spend money on education and social programs are always willing to spend money on prisons. Nationwide almost half (47%) of the over 500% increase in the prison population over the past 25 years is the result of longer sentences, the rest (53%) is the result of more people going to prison. While the number of violent offenders sent to prison in the US doubled between 1985-2000, the number of drug offenders rose an astounding 546%. But while the rate of incarceration for non-violent crime, especially for drug offenders, has increased dramatically the amount of drug use in our society is virtually unchanged. (Mauer, "Race to Incarcerate").
Crime rates are falling in Colorado. They have been for decades now. Despite that fact the budget for the Department of Corrections has grown every year for two decades. Gov. Hicklelooper has slowed the departments growth. He has not rolled it back. It needs to be rolled back. Non-violent offenders serving life sentences are a large part of the population of every prison in the state. Most may in fact richly deserve to have been incarcerated. Few deserve to be incarcerated for the rest of their natrual lives. As Mauer notes in his fine book on this subject ("Race to Incarcerate"): "Two factors determine the size of a nation's prison population, the rate at which they are admitted to prison, and the length of time offnders serve in prison. Neither factor is related to the crime rate. Of the two length of sentence is the more important."
For that reason activists here on the Western Slope are launching a campaign to repeal Colorado's habitual offender law. We recognize doing so may require years of effort. Lawmakers have created a monstor that must be fed continually because thousands of jobs depend on it. Every year nions representing police and correctional employees pump millions of dollars into the coffers of both parties to prevent reform of any kind. The current drug czar himself admits the drug war has failed. Despite the arrests of some 30 million people since 1970, and the expenditure of over a trillion dollars drug use is virtually unchanged. Yet legalization is as far away as ever because some 700,000 correctional workers alone depend upon a continued policy of mass incarceration. That is not counting police, DA's, social workers, parole officers, and others whose livings are tied to waging this endless war, mainly against the poor of this country. We know that our campaign to repeal the "three strikes" law will not address many of these issues. But, you need to start somewhere. We want to meet other people interested in working on this issue here and accross the state. Contact us firstname.lastname@example.org