Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘stanford law school

A Life Sentence for 1.2 Grams of Crack?

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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.

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Is 16 Years in Prison for Attempted Theft of 3 Disposable Cameras: a) Humane? b) Just? c) A Good Use of State Resources? Discuss.

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From time to time I receive emails from Stanford Law School announcing the victories of its various student legal clinics. Normally, I don’t pay much attention since I get so many listserv-type emails. Every once in a while one jumps out at me. For instance, yesterday I received such an email with the following subject line:

Client Freed after serving 16 years for Trying to Steal Three Disposable Cameras

The client, who had initially been sentenced to 25-to-life in 1995, was represented by Stanford’s Three Strikes Project, which you can read more about here.

Is It Time to Retire the Phrase “Mass Incarceration”?

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Loic Wacquant:

Mass incarceration is a mischaracterization of what is better termed hyperincarceration. … Mass incarceration suggests that confinement concerns large swaths of the citizenry (as with the mass media, mass culture, and mass unemployment), implying that the penal net has been flung far and wide across social space. This is triply inaccurate. First, the prevalence of penal confinement in the United States, while extreme by international standards, can hardly be said to concern the masses. Indeed, a rate of 0.75 percent compares quite favorably with the incidence of such woes as latent tuberculosis infection (estimated at 4.2 percent) and severe alcohol dependency (3.81 percent), ailments which no one would seriously contend have reached mass proportions in the United States. Next, the expansion and intensification of the activities of the police, courts, and prison over the past quarter-century have been anything but broad and indiscriminate. They have been finely targeted, first by class, second by that disguised brand of ethnicity called race, and third by place. This cumulative targeting has led to the hyperincarceration of one particular category, lower-class African American men trapped in the crumbling ghetto, while leaving the rest of society — including, most remarkably, middle- and upper-class African Americans — practically untouched. Third, and more important still, this triple selectivity is a constitutive property of the phenomenon: had the penal state been rolled out indiscriminately by policies resulting in the capture of vast numbers of whites and well-to-do citizens, capsizing their families and decimating their neighborhoods as it has for inner-city African Americans, its growth would have been speedily derailed and eventually stopped by political counteraction.

Bob Weisberg & Joan Petersilia: Read the rest of this entry »

Is the U.S. Law School Curriculum (Partly) to Blame for Mass Incarceration?

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Let’s say you want to learn more about the recent history of mass incarceration in the United States, but you only have time for one book. Although there are many excellent candidates, one that I’d recommend is The Prison and the Gallows, by Marie Gottschalk (Cambridge UP, 2006). Gottschalk synthesizes a lot of scholarly literature to provide a one-volume chronicle of the explosive growth of the U.S. prison population in the past 30 years. She seeks to explain the uniquely American social and political forces that enabled this development, juxtaposing the U.S. against all the other Western nations which did not experience similar growth in the penal system. I found particularly useful Gottschalk’s chapter on why the rhetoric of “victims’ rights” gained such political force in the United States as a justification for passing harsher sentencing laws. Short answer: Our tradition of prosecutorial discretion, combined with federalism. (Longer but still oversimplified answer below.)

On top of those factors, Gottschalk argues, “Differences in the legal training, professional norms, and career paths of prosecutors, judges, and other judicial administrators are another reason why the U.S. criminal justice system has been more vulnerable to political winds whipped up by politicians and social movements” (98). I thought I’d highlight one passage in which Gottschalk compares German and American legal training: Read the rest of this entry »

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