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Fear and Loathing in California

As the campaign of hatred against people in prison reaches a frenzied crescendo in this era of reactionary politics, several draconian measure were passed by California legislators in the 1994 session vying with each other for the title, "Toughest On Crime."

A version of the so-called "Three Strikes" law swiftly passed both houses of the state legislature and was signed into law by Governor Pete Wilson. The law doubles statutory sentences for a second serious felony offense, and mandates a term of 25 years to life for the third. It applies to even non-violent felonies, and has already resulted in life sentences for several people convicted of petty theft. This poorly drafted legislation was analyzed by the Judicial Council of California and found to have a number of critical flaws. The analysis represents the views of thirteen judges from around the state. One of the potential problems singled out by the panel were provisions in the new law involving felonies committed by teenagers. Another major defect is the elimination or reduction of good time work time credits for prisoners convicted of selected crimes. The judges found that this may violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

California voters also passed a "Three Strikes" initiative, placed on last November's ballot by self-appointed crime fighter, Mike Reynolds, who joined the "tough on crime" army after his daughter was murdered in 1992. According to Reynolds, three judges helped write the controversial initiatives. If true, the Code of Judicial Ethics would require those three judges to recuse themselves from hearing any cases involving challenges to the initiative, however Reynolds refuses to say who the judges are, and they have not identified themselves. The initiative version requires judges to count even Juvenile offenses as "strikes." The Office of Legislative Analyst has reported it will cost taxpayers an additional $1 billion each year, just for the "Three Strikes"-prisoners over and above normal prison operating costs. "Three Strikes" cases involving relatively minor offenses have virtually swamped Los Angeles and other counties since the initiative was passed. One of the added costs of this legislation is the fact that defendants facing a third-strike conviction are much less likely to plead guilty. The resulting increase in criminal trials threatens to overwhelm the courts.

The "One Strike" law, which mandates life sentences for specified sex offenses involving violence or underage victims also passed the legislature. It was signed into law by Governor Wilson, who was re-elected in November. Wilson's campaign was based solely on Proposition 187, the so-called "Save Our State" initiative which prohibits illegal aliens from attending public schools, receiving financial assistance, or medical care. Prop 187 passed and it now requires school teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers, and even abortion clinic counselors to demand proof of citizenship from "suspicious" persons.

The prison family visiting program remains intact for now. Proposed bills AB X25 and X35, sponsored by ultra rightwing Assembly member, Dean Andal, were defeated in committee hearings, but given reconsideration once the public left the hearings. Andal eventually succeeded in getting a portion of one of the bills attached to the Budget Act as a rider. This amendment gives the CDC the authority to terminate family visits for certain classes of sex offenders. Andal's staff later admitted that it chose to target sex offenders with the amendment because of a belief that they would be afraid to protest.

The politically powerful prison guard's union voted overwhelmingly in favor of taking family visits at a secret statewide rally. Right wing social activists, disguised as victims' rights groups, are planning an all-out assault against prison family visits beginning with the 1995 legislative session.

Senate Bill X22, which initially would have banned weight lilting in California prisons and youth facilities, was amended at the last minute when a similar provision was stricken from the federal Omnibus Crime Bill. The version that was signed into law defines prisoner access to weights as "privilege" and requires the Director of the Department of Corrections to submit a "plan" by June 1995 for the use of weights in prison that does not include building strength or muscular size.

Assembly Bill 113 also made law. This bill requires California prisoners to pay five dollars for all "non-emergency" sick call visits California Correctional Institutions, and other prisons, have already implemented new medical care policies. These include taking all aspirin and Tylenol from the housing units, and requiring prisoners to purchase over-the-counter medications like Advil and Acufed at inflated prices at the canteen.

This is a dangerous bill which will not save money. The time and effort required to process the five dollar trust withdrawals will cost ten times any amount recovered. Prisoners who make an average of $15 a month, and have to buy toiletries at retail prices, may choose not to seek medical attention for persistent coughs, headaches, or rashes. These symptoms may signal the onset of highly contagious, potentially life threatening, diseases like tuberculosis, hepatitis, or HIV. Some 30% of California prisoners are now infected with tuberculosis.

Rather than focus on the roots of crime, politicians, the media, and the public in California have scapegoated two powerless groups (prisoners and illegal aliens) who lack monied lobbyists and organized support. People in prison and illegal aliens are not the cause of California's problems. But because lawmakers have shirked their obligation to serve the public's best interest in favor of appealing to the mob mentality, the problems will continue to worsen and the state's debt will continue to grow.

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