A Life Sentence for 1.2 Grams of Crack?
In his book Cruel Justice: Three Strikes and the Politics of Crime in America’s Golden State, Joe Domanick tells the story of Tommy Lee Fryman:
In 1998, Fryman was arrested in San Jose for being under the influence of cocaine. Tommy Lee was strip-searched when the cops found 1.2 grams of crack cocaine “hidden between his buttocks.” He pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine base, and because of nine prior felony convictions “alleged as strikes,” was given a three strikes sentence of twenty-five-to-life.
Here’s the kicker: If Tommy Lee Fryman had been arrested just a few years later, he would not have served a day in prison. In November 2000 California voters passed Prop. 36, which mandates treatment, not hard time, for simple-possession drug charges. At that time, California was incarcerating 36,000 men and women a year for simple possession — the highest number in the nation both in absolute and per capita terms. Of that number, about 580 people, like Fryman, had been sentenced to 25-to-life sentences for simple drug possession under the 1994 Three Strikes Law. (The close proximity in time of Three Strikes and Prop. 36 is, itself, a fairly good metric of the incoherence of California criminal justice policy.)
Fryman’s federal habeas case was argued at the Ninth Circuit this week by two students from Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project. Fryman’s argument is, first, that the sentence is cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment, and second, that the sentence violates the Equal Protection Clause, given that voters approved Prop. 36 while Fryman’s state appeals were still pending (and thus, i.e., that Fryman is being treated differently before the law than similarly situated offenders). You can listen to the oral argument at this link (the case name is Fryman v. Duncan).
Although I don’t normally cover sentencing law, this case and others like it help to explain today’s prison conditions. There is a generation or more of Californians — those who were of crime-committing-age between 1980 and 2000 — who racked up criminal records and prison stints on the basis of draconian drug sentencing practices that California voters have since rejected. A lot of those men and women are still in the system or still being hurt by the system, whether because prison ruined their life, or because they got into further trouble once labeled a criminal, or because they got out of prison and finding few resources to help them went back to using drugs, or whatever reason. Or because like Fryman, they are literally still in prison because they were caught up both in the drug war and the Three Strikes Law. And the same story could be told about New York and the Rockefeller drug laws, and many other states, and certainly about the federal system. Sentencing reform for the future is an important first step, but the roots of mass incarceration can’t be pulled out so neatly — ultimately some form of retrospective justice will also be needed, I think. Imagine what additional challenges your life might have included if you’d been sent to prison 10 or 20 years ago, and now consider that for millions of Americans, that happened.