Law & the Courts

End the ‘Three Strikes’ Law That Sends People to Die in Prison for Drug Crimes

Marvin Caldwell, 63, who said he was imprisoned for 20 years under the three strikes law for possession and sale of methamphetamine, looks out of his cell at San Quentin state prison in San Quentin, Calif., June 8, 2012. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters )
Judges should have the discretion to sentence as they see fit in each case.

It’s beyond time to end the “three strikes” law that sentences people to die in prison for their third drug offense — and instead give judges the discretion to levy punishments as they see fit.

Take, for example, the case of Chris Young. According to Reason, Young was 26 years old when he was sentenced to life in federal prison because of drugs. The reason? Prosecutors filed an “851 notice,” which subjects offenders to a mandatory life sentence without parole if they’re convicted of a third drug crime.

Yes, Young had been in trouble twice before: He had two low-level crack-cocaine offenses on his record from when he was a teenager. As Reason notes, in those cases, the amount of crack he was found with combined was only 7.5 grams, “or roughly the weight of three pennies.” That’s not a lot of crack, but it was still enough to allow prosecutors to file that 851 against him when he was later charged with cocaine trafficking. In other words, those small amounts of crack are the reason he is now sentenced to die behind bars.

Now, I’m not saying that Young didn’t break the law. I believe that all drugs should be legalized. In a truly free country, people would have the freedom to decide what they do with their own bodies. But I do understand that many drugs are currently illegal. Regardless of the fact that he broke the law, however, dooming him to die in prison is both extremely harsh and incredibly unnecessary.

See, Young showed signs at his hearing that he had become a changed man. He gave a speech showing what he’d learned in his studies during the four years he’d spent in county jail — complete with references to Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, and various Greek philosophers. He also talked about his devastatingly difficult childhood — about growing up in a house without water or power with a drug-addicted mother, and about how he found his brother’s body after he’d committed suicide when he was 18 years old. Young had had to face obstacles that would leave anyone troubled, and he was clearly trying to better himself. It’s nothing short of cruel that he won’t ever be given the chance to contribute to society as he might have done if his sentence hadn’t been so severe.

I’m far from the only one who thinks this way. In fact, the very judge who was forced to sentence Young to life stated that he listened to Young’s speech and lamented that he couldn’t give him a lighter sentence.

“I’m just listening to this thinking, ‘Oh my God, what are we doing?’” the judge, Kevin Sharp, said.

Thankfully, this may change soon. As Reason notes, a bipartisan group of senators has introduced the FIRST STEP Act, which would reduce the penalties to 15 years for a second drug offense and 25 years for a third. Make no mistake: This is a great start, and I hope that it passes. In a perfect world, though, there wouldn’t be any mandatory penalties at all. Every situation is different, after all, and judges should have the freedom to treat them as such.

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