Commentary: The faces of 'three strikes' law

Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee. (Sacramento Bee/MCT)
Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee. (Sacramento Bee/MCT)

Roney Nunez positioned and repositioned his wheelchair just so, reached down with his right hand and began scratching at the linoleum floor, focusing intensely on the task.

Why was not apparent.

Oblivious to the world outside, Nunez didn't gaze up at the half-dozen people gathered on the other side of the steel and hardened glass door to his cell, 4½ feet by 11 feet.

"He doesn't know who he is, or where he is," Dr. Joseph Bick told me as he offered a glimpse into the complexities of the Vacaville state prison, the California Medical Facility, where he is chief of medicine.

In his effort to erase California's $26.6 billion deficit, Gov. Jerry Brown ought to think about Roney Nunez.

Unlike Brown's decision to cut state-issued tchotchkes, nothing about Nunez is simple. But until his situation is confronted, incarceration costs surely will rise.

Nunez, 85, arrived at the California Medical Facility in 1996, sentenced to 25 years to life in prison under this state's "three-strikes" law.

He is a sex offender who had no fewer than 25 criminal cases against him in Santa Clara County, including a 1992 rape. But the crime for which he was sentenced to life behind bars was petty theft, committed in 1995.

For criminals like Nunez with long records, petty theft is a felony. If the theft happens to be a third strike, judges are empowered to impose the maximum, 25 years to life.

Fourteen years later, you and I spend an average of $114,000 annually to imprison Nunez, and maybe two dozen medically and mentally debilitated people like him.

The state spends another $50 million a year for two dozen other inmates whose illnesses cannot be treated in state prison hospitals.

As much as that is, it's a fraction of the $2 billion the state spends each year on inmate health care. Those costs will rise as inmates age. Age they will, so long as the three-strikes law remains as it is.

More than 40,000 of this state's 160,000 inmates are doing time under the three-strikes law, approved by voters in 1994 and championed by politicians, Brown among them.

The nation's harshest sentencing scheme, the law permits authorities to lock up repeat offenders for violent crimes and for crimes like petty theft, such as shoplifting.

Our collective disdain for criminals does not come cheap. In a snapshot of three-strikes last year, the California Bureau of State Audits estimated that the additional years that three-strikers are serving will cost $19.2 billion.

But cost is only one issue. Another is politics and the emotional power of crime victims. The law has heavyweight supporters, including Brown's benefactor, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, and proxy groups it funds that represent victims.

In 2004, the union spent $699,000 to defeat an initiative, Proposition 66, which would have weakened the three-strikes law. The union also enlisted Brown's help.

When he was governor the first time, Brown and the union were antagonists. But in 2004, Brown, then mayor of Oakland, was preparing to run for attorney general in 2006, and starred in commercials denouncing the attempt to water down the three-strikes law.

"Brown's efforts to defeat Proposition 66 helped rehabilitate his relationship with the CCPOA," University of Minnesota sociologist Joshua Page writes in a new book, "The toughest beat," which charts the union's rise and influence.

Brown's effort paid off. The union spent $1.81 million to help elect him governor in November.

Some lawmakers try to cut prison costs. Over objections of a guard-funded crime victims group, Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, pushed a bill last year authorizing medical parole for permanently debilitated inmates.

Five months after then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Leno's bill into law, Brown's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation continues to work on regulations to implement the law.

Corrections and J. Clark Kelso, appointed by federal courts to oversee prison health care, estimate that roughly 50 inmates in prison hospitals around the state could be released on medical parole.

The state undoubtedly could shave money from the prison budget by paroling incapacitated inmates, Nunez among them.

But it's not clear where authorities might place them. Even when facilities are found, taxpayers still will pay for their care, though the federal government might pick up part of the cost.

With or without the 50 inmates, California will spend $10 billion a year on prisons, more than it spends on the University of California and California State University systems combined.

Until California politicians and voters confront the costs of the three-strikes sentencing law, we will be a little like Roney Nunez, the demented 85-year-old prisoner who reached down from his wheelchair and scratched the surface.

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