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November 26, 2012

Spotlighting connection between mental illness and extreme three-strike sentences

Yesterday's New York Times ran this interesting editorial by Brent Staples concerning the impact and import of the recent reform of California's three-strikes law.  The piece has a particular focus on the role mental illness may play in many of the most troubling sentencing outcomes resulting from extra tough recidivism sentencing enhancements.  The piece is headlined "California Horror Stories and the 3-Strikes Law," and here are excerpts:

Californians brought a close to a shameful period in the state’s history when they voted this month to soften the infamous “three strikes” sentencing law.  The original law was approved by ballot initiative in 1994, not long after a parolee kidnapped and murdered a 12-year-old girl.  It was sold to voters as a way of getting killers, rapists and child molesters off the streets for good.

As it turned out, three strikes created a cruel, Kafkaesque criminal justice system that lost all sense of proportion, doling out life sentences disproportionately to black defendants.  Under the statute, the third offense that could result in a life sentence could be any number of low-level felony convictions, like stealing a jack from the back of a tow truck, shoplifting a pair of work gloves from a department store, pilfering small change from a parked car or passing a bad check.  In addition to being unfairly punitive, the law drove up prison costs.

The revised law preserves the three-strikes concept, but it imposes a life sentence only when the third felony offense is serious or violent, as defined in state law.  It also authorizes the courts to resentence thousands of people who were sent away for low-level third offenses and who present no danger to the public.

The resentencing process is shaping up as a kind of referendum on the state’s barbaric treatment of mentally ill defendants, who make up a substantial number of those with life sentences under the three-strikes rule.  It is likely that many were too mentally impaired to assist their lawyers at the time of trial.

Mentally ill inmates are nearly always jailed for behaviors related to their illness. Nationally, they account for about one-sixth of the prison population.  The ratio appears to be higher among three-strike lifers in California.  According to a 2011 analysis of state data by Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project, nearly 40 percent of these inmates qualify as mentally ill and are receiving psychiatric services behind bars....

Asked about the relationship of mental illness and three-strikes prosecutions, Michael Romano, director of the Stanford project, responded, “In my experience, every person who has been sentenced to life in prison for a nonserious, nonviolent crime like petty theft suffers from some kind of mental illness or impairment — from organic brain disorders, to schizophrenia, to mental retardation, to severe P.T.S.D.,” or post-traumatic stress disorder. Nearly all had been abused as children, he pointed out.  All had been homeless for extended periods, and many were illiterate. None had graduated from high school.

In other words, these were discarded people who could be made to bear the brunt of this brutal law without risk of public backlash.... And as more cases unfold in court, judges, lawyers and Californians should look back with shame at the injustice the state inflicted on a vulnerable population that often presented little or no danger to the public.

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November 26, 2012 at 10:43 AM | Permalink

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Comments

As a CA prosecutor who was assigned to a Career Criminal Unit handling 3K cases, I can say Mr. staples makes sweeping generalizations that would not bear out if one had the time to look at individual cases. The idea that all, or most 3K defendants, whose new offense was non serious or violent, are seriously mentally ill is simply incorrect.

Also, while Romano's experience was interesting, the fact is that they SELECTED their clients so they are not particularly representative of the whole.

Posted by: David | Nov 26, 2012 1:27:57 PM

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