Via Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi on crime and punishment under California’s Three Strikes law:
Suddenly, a pair of socks caught his eye. He grabbed them and slipped them into a shopping bag. “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. 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. 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.
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.