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Cruel and Unusual Punishment: The Shame of Three Strikes Laws

While Wall Street crooks walk, thousands sit in California prisons for life over crimes as trivial as stealing socks

Illustration by Victor Juhasz
March 27, 2013 7:00 AM ET

On July 15th, 1995, in the quiet Southern California city of Whittier, a 33-year-old black man named Curtis Wilkerson got up from a booth at McDonald's, walked into a nearby mall and, within the space of two hours, turned himself into the unluckiest man on Earth. "I was supposed to be waiting there while my girlfriend was at the beauty salon," he says.

So he waited. And waited. After a while, he paged her. "She was like, 'I need another hour,'" he says. "So I was like, 'Baby, I'm going to the mall.'"

Having grown up with no father and a mother hooked on barbiturates, Wilkerson, who says he still boasts a Reggie Miller jumper, began to spend more time on the streets. After his mother died when he was 16, he fell in with a bad crowd, and in 1981 he served as a lookout in a series of robberies. He was quickly caught and sentenced to six years in prison. After he got out, he found work as a forklift operator, and distanced himself from his old life.

But that day in the mall, something came over him. He wandered from store to store, bought a few things, still shaking his head about his girlfriend's hair appointment. After a while, he drifted into a department store called Mervyn's. Your typical chain store, full of mannequins and dress racks; they're out of business today. Suddenly, a pair of socks caught his eye. He grabbed them and slipped them into a shopping bag.

What kind of socks were they, that they were worth taking the risk?

"They were million-dollar socks with gold on 'em," he says now, laughing almost uncontrollably, as he tells the story 18 years later, from a telephone in a correctional facility in Soledad, California.

Really, they were that special?

"No, they were ordinary white socks," he says, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. "Didn't even have any stripes."

Wilkerson never made it out of the store. At the exit, he was, shall we say, over­enthusiastically apprehended by two security officers. They took him to the store security office, where the guards started to argue with each other over whether or not to call the police. One guard wanted to let him pay for the socks and go, but the other guard was more of a hardass and called the cops, having no idea he was about to write himself a part in one of the most absurd scripts to ever hit Southern California.

Thanks to a brand-new, get-tough-on-crime state law, Wilkerson would soon be sentenced to life in prison for stealing a pair of plain white tube socks worth $2.50.

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"No, sir, I was not expecting that one," he says now, laughing darkly. Because Wilkerson had two prior convictions, both dating back to 1981, the shoplifting charge counted as a third strike against him. He was sentenced to 25 years to life, meaning that his first chance for a parole hearing would be in 25 years.

And given that around 80 percent of parole applications are rejected by parole boards, and governors override parole boards in about 50 percent of the instances where parole is granted, it was a near certainty that Wilkerson would never see the outside of a prison again.

The state also fined him $2,500 – restitution for the stolen socks. He works that off by putting in four to five hours a day in the prison cafeteria, for which he gets paid $20 a month, of which the state takes $11. At this rate, he will be in his nineties before he's paid the state off for that one pair of socks.

As for the big question – does he ever wish he could go back in time and wait it out in that McDonald's for another hour, instead of 18 years in the California prison system? – Wilkerson, who has learned to laugh, laughs again.

"Man," he says, "I think about that every single day."

Wilkerson is unlucky, but he's hardly alone. Despite the passage in late 2012 of a new state ballot initiative that prevents California from ever again giving out life sentences to anyone whose "third strike" is not a serious crime, thousands of people – the overwhelming majority of them poor and nonwhite – remain imprisoned for a variety of offenses so absurd that any list of the unluckiest offenders reads like a macabre joke, a surrealistic comedy routine.

Have you heard the one about the guy who got life for stealing a slice of pizza? Or the guy who went away forever for lifting a pair of baby shoes? Or the one who got 50 to life for helping himself to five children's videotapes from Kmart? How about the guy who got life for possessing 0.14 grams of meth? That last offender was a criminal mastermind by Three Strikes standards, as many others have been sentenced to life for holding even smaller amounts of drugs, including one poor sap who got the max for 0.09 grams of black-tar heroin.

This Frankenstein's monster of a mandatory-sentencing system isn't just some localized bureaucratic accident, but the legacy of a series of complex political choices we all made as voters decades ago. California's Three Strikes law has its origins in a terrible event from October 1993, when, in a case that outraged the entire country, a violent felon named Richard Allen Davis kidnapped and murdered an adolescent girl named Polly Klaas. Californians were determined to never again let a repeat offender get the chance to commit such a brutal crime, and so a year later, with the Klaas case still fresh in public memory, the state's citizens passed Proposition 184 – the Three Strikes law – with an overwhelming 72 percent of the vote. Under the ballot initiative, anyone who had committed two serious felonies would effectively be sentenced to jail for life upon being convicted of a third crime.

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The overwhelming support for the measure touched off a nationwide get-tough-on-crime movement, embraced especially by third-way-style Democrats, who seized upon the policy idea as a powerful weapon in their efforts to throw off their party's bleeding-heart image and recapture the political center. Having seen their wonk-geekish 1988 presidential candidate, Michael Dukakis, expertly exploded by the infamous Willie Horton ad cooked up by Republican strategist Lee Atwater – an ad that convinced voters that the Democrats were the party of scary-looking black rapists on furlough – Democrats had spent years searching for a way to send Middle America a different message.

Three Strikes was a perfect way to convey that new message. The master triangulator himself, Bill Clinton, stumped for a national Three Strikes law in his 1994 State of the Union address. When a federal version passed a year later, Clinton took special care to give squeamish wuss-bunny liberals a celebratory kick in the ear, using the same "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" rhetorical technique George W. Bush would make famous a few years later. "Narrow-interest groups on the left and the right didn't want the bill to pass," Clinton beamed, "and you can be sure the criminals didn't either."

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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