When a petty-thieving drug addict receives a harsher sentence than a convicted killer, something is very wrong
About two years ago, a young Californian man called Jeremy Stewart broke into two unoccupied homes and stole some jewellery. He had started using crystal meth (methamphetamine) and was stealing to feed his addiction. Burglary of a residence is counted as a serious offense in California, and as Jeremy already had two strikes against him (one for a previous burglary and a second for coming into contact with stolen goods), he had landed himself in considerable trouble.
He had no idea how much trouble, however, neither did his mother Elizabeth Stewart, who described what followed:
"My young son of 25 years was arrested. The district attorney made no offers and Jeremy was forced to go to trial. The attorney I hired (Anthony J Solare) never prepared us for what was about to happen next.
"Jeremy was convicted October 2010. Judge David Gills S of San Diego issued two strikes, each for 25 years, plus ten times two years for breach of contract. The judge referred to it as 'two nickels doubled up'. Seventy years for taking jewellery worth less than the price of an old car."
Due to the severity of his sentence and because his crimes are counted as serious felonies, Jeremy was sent to Calipatria State Prison, a maximum security facility, designed to house the "worst of the worst". Because he was convicted under the three strikes law, he cannot reduce the time he spends in prison by more than one-fifth (rather than the standard one-half) of his sentence; therefore, he will become eligible for parole in 59.5 years, when he is 86 years old.
His two small children, now aged one and three, will not meet their father outside a prison visiting room until they are in their sixties. One hates to bring up anything so crass as money at such a moment, but should Jeremy live until his seventies or eighties, his incarceration will have cost the California taxpayer in the vicinity of $4m dollars.
I thought Jeremy's case must have broken some kind of sentencing record for a non-violent offender, until I learned of a man called Thomas Dye who received a sentence of 167 years under the three strikes law for a serious of petty thefts, bouncing checks and stealing a truck. I can't spare the words here to get into the rationale behind Dye's 167-year sentence, but because he tried to appeal, all the details of the verdict can be seen in his online court records.??
In both Thomas Dye's and Jeremy Stewart's cases, the law in California was upheld. Whether justice was served or not is another matter. The Three Strikes statute requires consecutive, rather than concurrent, sentencing for multiple offenses committed by strikers, so an offender, like Jeremy, who was convicted of two third-strike offenses, would receive a minimum term of 50 years (two 25-year terms added together) to life.
That accounts for 50 of Jeremy's 70 year sentence. The added flourish of "two nickels doubled up", which gave him an additional 20 years, is harder to explain, but has to do with judicial and prosecutorial discretion that allows for sentencing enhancements.?
There are cheaper and better alternatives to making nonviolent offenders repay their debt to society. Jeremy's crimes were all related to his addiction to drugs. Many states have long since recognized that treating drug addiction, rather than punishing it, is a more sustainable approach to tackling drug related crime.
Had Jeremy committed his crimes in Brooklyn, for instance, he would probably have qualified to participate in the Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison (DTAP) program, designed by Brooklyn's district attorney, Charles Hynes. This program targets drug-addicted defendants who have previously been convicted of one or more nonviolent felony. He would have had to enter a guilty plea and would have received a deferred sentence (nowhere near the vicinity of 70 years), and then would have begun drug treatment.
Had he successfully graduated from the program, as most participants do, the charges against him would have been dismissed, his record would have been wiped clean and he would have received help in finding a job. He could have become a tax payer, rather than a life-long drain on other taxpayers.
Jeremy Stewart's crimes were serious; no doubt, he caused considerable distress to his victims, as well as to his own family. But when it comes to sending a man to prison, a sense of proportion ought to prevail. When a convicted burglar receives a sentence almost three times longer that they would have received had they committed first-degree murder, something is gravely amiss.
California's three strikes law, which allows for such anomalies to occur, ought to be revised, if not repealed.
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