Why does the US put so many people behind bars and what lies behind California’s new push for leniency?
The US locks up more people than any other country in the world, spending over $80bn each year to keep some two million prisoners behind bars. Over the past three decades, tough sentencing laws have contributed to a doubling of the country’s prison population, with laws commonly known as ‘three strikes and you’re out’ mandating life sentences for a wide range of crimes.
But a clear sign that Americans are rethinking crime and punishment is a voter’s initiative on California’s November ballot called Proposition 36 that seeks to reform the state’s three-strikes law. Some 27 states have three-strikes laws patterned after California’s version, which was one of the first to be enacted in the country.
Since it was passed in 1994, nearly 9,000 felons have been convicted in California under the law.
One of them is Norman Williams, a 49-year-old African-American man who was a crack addict living on the streets. He was convicted of burglarising an empty home and later stealing an armload of tools from an art studio. His third strike: filching a jack from a tow truck in Long Beach. His fate sealed under California’s three-strikes law, Williams was sent to a maximum security prison alongside murderers, rapists and other violent criminals.
“I never wanted to do my whole life in prison. Nobody wants to be caged like that,” Williams says.