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Three Strikes and Civil Rights

May 12, 2011 08:00:00 am
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Photo by Matteo Parrini via Flickr

Are reporters missing the real story about our criminal justice system? A veteran California journalist says a recent conference on the state’s Three-Strikes law exposed the system’s endemic racism.

The racism within the police-court-prison system is one of America’s most neglected evils, as is the impact it has on the poor African-American and Latino communities that are home for so many released convicts.

I’m wondering if I’ve already lost some of my readers. Who cares about criminals? Some of the journalists I met last week said they get the same reaction from their editors.

I joined them at a symposium sponsored by New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice designed to encourage better reporting of this neglected field. We spent two days at the University of

Southern California talking with a range of experts guided by center director Stephen Handelman and Joe Domanick, the associate director.

My fellow attendees were journalists working for newspapers, radio stations and online operations. Some were staff reporters, others freelancers. Two who sat near me illustrated the diversity of the gathering. On one side was Rose Davis, founder of Indian Voices , a website and newspaper covering social justice issues of the Native American and other minority communities. On the other side was Mary Slosson, executive producer for the USC Annenberg journalism school’s NeonTommy website.

The main topic was how to report the long and repetitive controversy over California’s three-strikes law, a draconian statute approved by the voters in 1994 after the horrible murder of 12-year-old Polly Klass by an ex-convict. The killer had been released from prison after serving eight years of a 16-year sentence for a series of armed robberies. Previously, he served six years in prison after he attempted a rape, brutally assaulted a woman in the course of a burglary, and tried to kidnap another woman at gunpoint.

The solution to this was based on a sports analogy, except, in this case, the third strike means you’re in—in prison for a long time and often for a small offense. The law imposes a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life for anyone convicted of a felony if that person has two previous felony convictions. The third-strikes sentence has been imposed for nonviolent offenses—such as stealing videos, golf clubs or even a pizza—permitted by the law to be raised to felony status.

The discussions ranged far beyond three-strikes. Through all the conversations, an underlying issue, to me, was racism.

Racism has always been a powerful force in the web of police, prosecutors, judges, prison guards and wardens who make up the criminal justice system.

But beginning in the 1980s the war on drugs made it worse, with repeated raids on poor African-American and Latino neighborhoods while the cops and prosecutors generally ignored economically better-off whites using cocaine in the safety of their homes.

Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney who heads the Advancement Project, has long fought for racial justice by police, prosecutors and the courts, as well as in the

schools and other institutions. She told the journalists the war on drugs was based on crime suppression in poor, minority areas. Cops stop young men and arrest them when they suspect drug possession. Arrests add up over the years to a third strike.

The three-strikes prosecutions, said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California Irvine School of Law, focus disproportionately on African-Americans and Latinos. Thirty-seven percent of such inmates are African-Americans and 33 percent are Latinos. These statistics are in line with national figures showing that African-Americans and Latinos outnumber whites in prison by a margin of almost 2-to-1.

Veteran activist Tom Hayden, an expert on gangs, talked about the lack of jobs confronting convicts when they leave prison. A one-striker, returned to the old neighborhood unemployed and without prospects, is just a crime away from being a two-striker and then committing the third. “Deindustrialization has eliminated jobs people took after prison,” he said.

The journalists’ challenge, said Connie Rice, is “to connect the dots,” to put all these elements into a coherent, compelling story.

That’s a big challenge, and journalism may not be up to it. At the end of the meeting, the hard facts of life in today’s media climate intruded. One reporter said her editors weren’t interested in the subject because they didn’t think the readers cared.

Another was a court reporter who wanted to explore how the system works on the streets. But her beat includes two courthouses, separated by many miles in a sprawling county. I doubt whether she has much time for prowling the streets. A third reporter talked about the strains imposed on the remaining members of a staff hit by layoffs.

Add to those obstacles Internet editors’ demands for quick and numerous short stories that will produce more hits and page views.

Despite the challenges, I left the room tremendously impressed with the energy of the reporters. One said he had thought of 21 story ideas during the symposium. The journalists are today’s civil rights reporters, engaged in a job as big and challenging, but much more unglamorous, than that of an earlier generation. During the civil rights movement, it was easy to get people worked up about an African-American kid barred from a school or a church burned down. Today, it is almost impossible to stimulate the interest of editors and audiences in a black or Latino ex-convict hoping for a fresh chance rather than a third strike.

ED NOTE:  This story originally appeared May 9 on Truthdig.com.

Bill Boyarsky is a  political correspondent for Truthdig and former city editor, columnist and Pulitzer-Prizewinning reporter for The Los Angeles Times. In 2010, the Los Angeles Press Club named him Online Journalist of the Year. This year, Truthdig won the 2011 Webby Award in the Blog-Political category.

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Sunday, May 22, 2011 01:32

Well Dr Jeffery P….thank you for pointing out that any hint of racial injustice is nothing more than Marxism.

It’s too bad there isn’t this grouping of information called American History which proves from time to time that in over 200 years of our so called blind justice and democracy for all…that institutionalized racism and discrimination in the form of Jim Crow laws; unfair institutionalized (as in corporations) banking and housing powers — not to mention those against gay marriage and abortion — have not truly existed.

And that just so many law abiding and successful Americans of white skin color have been truly law abiding and successful on their own. By simple hard work.

It’s really too bad that judges and the courts and police officers and parole officers and CDCR, as well as all the private sector corporations and small business hat make money off of these entities — are continually libeled and slandered and falsely accused of any brutality or corruption…or simply the breaking of the law of any kind.

Maybe…just maybe we, as law abiding and successful on our own Americans of white skin color…should vote and do away with 3 strikes. Just make it 1 strike. Keep it simple.
Right Doctor Jeffery P?

Posted by Camille Landry
Wednesday, May 18, 2011 01:11

A reader has commented that “social justiceand racial justiceare code words for Marxism.” What a novel idea. I suppose that the Bill of Rights is a commie plot, too!

The reader goes on to say that people who are convicted of crimes are not victims of racism. Perhaps he is unaware that police stop black and brown people at far higher rates than they accost whites. “Driving while black” is very real. I don’t know one single black man who has not been victim to this, and this number includes ministers, college professors, police officers and my great-grandfather at the age of 85, whose “crime” was to stop to feed the ducks in a school pond." Lest this be dismissed as anecdotal evidence, I suggest the reader check out the following data from the US Dept of Justice, Ohio State and U. Minn College of Law:

As the mother of a son who was slammed up against a squad car and handcuffed in front of witnesses for the “crime” of walking from the bus stop carrying his high school calculus book (“It looked like stolen goods to me,” said the cop), this is not an academic issue to me. The politics of race in America have adopted a new lingo, one that steadfastly avoids talking about race for race’s sake and instead substitutes the language of criminality, throwing in buzzwords like “Marxist” and "socialist’ for good measure. But if it walks like a duck, looks like a duck and quacks, it’s most likely a duck.

Posted by Keitherini Odomelli
Sunday, May 15, 2011 10:40

DrJefferyP’s attitude and comments seem very mainstream and typical and therefore deserve a considered reply. Some of my comments are a bit nitpicky but others are more substantial.

First off, “Social Justice” IS sometimes about Marxism, but. It actually covers a lot more territory and usually does. It is a catchall term for a whole host of liberal and leftist causes. Dr. P appears to be using it in a reactionary baiting way. He is implying that anyone who supports prisonreform or an end to mass longterm incarceration or suspects elements of racism in the criminal justice system must be a communist! I don’t believe that is true and the comment seems like demagoguery. And incidentally Marxism was also known for mass incarceration .

He is correct that not committing crimes is an option for not getting a 3rd strike. That is true.

He does not address the underlying basic issue of whether 3 Strikes is actually justice. As written, as applied. What would be a misdemeanor for someone without a criminal record becomes a 25-to-Life term for someone with 2 Strikes. A result I find ridiculous.

As for bad convictions actually being found out and overturned, only sometimes. Sometimes they aren’t or are only overturned many years later.

The “system” is made up of fallible human beings and like all large organizations takes on a life of it’s own, in effect becoming an animate thing that has it’s own thoughts and attitudes and behavior.

As to whether this particular animate system is racist or not, I don’t think we can tell with the information we have.

The fact that overall state minorities are vastly overrepresented in the prison system doesn’t tell us the answer. It IS true that different groups of people have different crime rates. So the bare bones conviction rate doesn’t tell you about racism in the system.

What would tell usabout systemic racism was if we could get side by side comparisons of a black man, a white man, and a brown man who all have identical prior prison records. Would they be charged idnetically? Would juries give them identical guilt or innocense consideration? Would judges treat them idenitically? I don’t think we have the information to say for sure.

DA’s make the choices about what to charge an accused person with. Judges decide what mercy to show, like whether or not to keep or drop a prior strike conviction. There is a lot of leeway and elbow room in there.
Do they always use their discretion fairly?

As to Tom Hayden being a gang expert. He probably doesn’t have much direct experience with gangs. But the same could be said of any academic or politician who claims to be an expert in anything other than academia or politics.

And none of this deals with the fundamental injustice of putting people in prison for life for what are misdemeanors. Or applying the strikes law retroactively to convictions prior to the law’s enactment.

Nor does this deal with the fundamental injustice of the War on Drugs which is the public policy which led to the high crime rates and mass incarceration craze. There is a large demand for drugs by a large percentage of the population. Then there has been a long and failed attempt to suppress and prohibit the use of drugs. This made drug distribution and use an outlaw enterprise and kept drugs really expensive. And THAT is what led to the high crime rate and mass policing and mass incarceration.

And that costs a lot of money. More than California can afford. California’s budgets are deeply in red ink. And mass incarceration is ver expensive. So I ask Dr. P the same question I ask all fans of the 3 Strikes Law: How much more in taxes is he willing to pay or what other government programs. Is he willing to cut in order to pay for 3 Strikes?

Posted by DrJeffreyP
Thursday, May 12, 2011 11:41

First off, if you don’t want the third strike don’t commit the third (or usually fourth or fifth) crime.

Social justice and racial justice is code for Marxism, not to surprising that “the readers” don’t care about it.

This article, indeed this conference seems to be making the assumptions that either a)minorities don’t commit the crimes for which they are arrested and convicted or b)that “the system” (an animate object) convicts minorities in large numbers because it is racist. Does that even make sense?

Crimes are committed by people who make the choice to commit crime. Whether they’re young or old, black or white or Hispanic, rich or poor, not doing crime is always an option. That more of one “type” choose this route does not make the system racist.

Evidence convicts, not attitude. Bad convictions are usually and eventually overturned. A person cannot be convicted of suspicion. The law allows suspicion to develop a case, but in the end, it’s the evidence that convicts. Did the villain have the gun? The drugs? Did they do the rape? The burglary?

Hayden a gang expert? I know gang experts and he’s not one of ’em.

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