Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A rare escape from 3-strikes law July 26, 2004

ISAAC RAMIREZ is a very lucky man. He's one of the few Californians to succeed in blunting the full force of California's "three strikes" juggernaut that has imposed life sentences on hundreds of Californians for relatively minor crimes, at an enormous cost to the taxpayer.

Ramirez's crime: stealing a $199 VCR in 1996 from a Sears store near San Bernardino. That's probably not the type of crime most voters had in mind when they passed California's harsh three strikes law in 1994 in response to the vicious murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas.

Without the three strikes law, Ramirez, now 42, would have been charged with a misdemeanor, and served a maximum of six months in jail. Instead, the shoplifting incident -- Ramirez's "third strike" -- earned him a sentence of 25 years to life. "I saw people doing much less time for more serious offenses like murder and manslaughter," he told us. "The whole thing was unfair and ridiculous."

He taught himself law in prison, and, representing himself, filed a writ of habeas corpus, charging that his sentence violated the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution barring "cruel and unusual punishment." Remarkably, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco agreed in April that his sentence was "grossly disproportionate" to the crimes he committed. It ordered him released after 5 1/2 years behind bars.

Ramirez's misfortune was that five years before the Sears incident -- and long before the "three strikes" law went into effect -- he had pleaded guilty to two other shoplifting charges: once when he tried to steal meat from a Lucky Store, and another when he attempted to steal a television set from Kmart.

Although he was unarmed in both cases, he was charged with taking personal property "by means of force and fear" -- a violent felony under the "three strikes" law. But Ramirez's actions bore no resemblance to the rap sheetof Polly Klaas' murderer, Richard Allen Davis. The fact that he was on the streets with his history of brutality became a rallying cry for passage of "three strikes."

In the Lucky Store incident, the getaway car, driven by a third person, nicked a security guard's foot, causing what the Ninth Circuit court described as "a minor injury." In the Kmart case, Ramirez pushed the security guard as he ran out of the store. "It is doubtful that California's 'three strikes' law was ever intended to apply to a nonviolent, three-time shoplifter such as Ramirez," the court found. Without its intervention, Ramirez would have had to serve a minimum of 25 years behind bars. At an annual cost of $31,000, the minimum cost to the taxpayer would have been $750,000.

Nearly two-thirds of the 7,373 "three strikes" inmates serving 25-year-to- life sentences as of March this year were convicted for nonviolent offenses, some as minor as those committed by Ramirez. At a cost approaching $1 million to incarcerate each of them, Californians must ask whether this is an expense the state can afford, especially as it grapples with perhaps the worst budget crisis in its history.

The advocacy group Justice Policy Institute is the only organization to have tried to estimate how much it costs to enforce. Between March 1994 and September 2003, the organization calculates that the law has added an additional 269,134 prison years to inmates' sentences -- at a cost of $8.1 billion. Of that amount, $4.7 billion is paying for 143,439 additional years inmates are serving for nonviolent offenses.

California spends an ever increasing share of its revenues on its prison system. A major factor in driving up costs has been the tenfold growth in the number of inmates incarcerated under the "three strikes" law -- from 4,408 in 1994 to 42,322 in 2004. That's one out of four California inmates.

These days, a relieved Ramirez works as a maintenance worker at the New Hope Family Worship Center near Riverside where he also runs its prison ministry. "I feel my prayers have come true, that a miracle has happened, but I feel my work isn't done yet," he says. "There are so many others that have cases like mine, and no one really cares about them."

For most Californians, caring is not the issue. A more basic question is whether it makes sense to spend billions of dollars keeping someone like Isaac Ramirez behind bars for decades. We don't think it does.

This article appeared on page B - 6 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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