May 13, 2011

Three Strikes and Civil Rights

Guest post by Bill Boyarsky*

The racism within the police-court-prison system is one of America’s most neglected evils, as is the impact it has on the poor African-American and Latino communities that are home for so many released convicts.

I’m wondering if I’ve already lost some of my readers. Who cares about criminals? Some of the journalists I met last week said they get the same reaction from their editors.

I joined them at a symposium sponsored by New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice designed to encourage better reporting of this neglected field…. My fellow attendees were journalists working for newspapers, radio stations and online operations. Some were staff reporters, others freelancers….

The main topic was how to report the long and repetitive controversy over California’s three-strikes law, a draconian statute approved by the voters in 1994 after the horrible murder of 12-year-old Polly Klass by an ex-convict. The killer had been released from prison after serving eight years of a 16-year sentence for a series of armed robberies. Previously, he served six years in prison after he attempted a rape, brutally assaulted a woman in the course of a burglary, and tried to kidnap another woman at gunpoint.

The solution to this was based on a sports analogy, except, in this case, the third strike means you’re in—in prison for a long time and often for a small offense. The law imposes a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life for anyone convicted of a felony if that person has two previous felony convictions. The third-strikes sentence has been imposed for nonviolent offenses—such as stealing videos, golf clubs or even a pizza—permitted by the law to be raised to felony status.

The discussions ranged far beyond three-strikes. Through all the conversations, an underlying issue, to me, was racism.

Racism has always been a powerful force in the web of police, prosecutors, judges, prison guards and wardens who make up the criminal justice system.

But beginning in the 1980s the war on drugs made it worse, with repeated raids on poor African-American and Latino neighborhoods while the police and prosecutors generally ignored economically better-off whites using cocaine in the safety of their homes.

Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney who heads the Advancement Project, has long fought for racial justice by police, prosecutors and the courts, as well as in the schools and other institutions. She told the journalists the war on drugs was based on crime suppression in poor, minority areas. Police stop young men and arrest them when they suspect drug possession. Arrests add up over the years to a third strike.

The three-strikes prosecutions, said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California Irvine School of Law, focus disproportionately on African-Americans and Latinos. Thirty-seven percent of such inmates are African-Americans and 33 percent are Latinos. These statistics are in line with national figures showing that African-Americans and Latinos outnumber whites in prison by a margin of almost 2-to-1.

Veteran activist Tom Hayden, an expert on gangs, talked about the lack of jobs confronting convicts when they leave prison. A one-striker, returned to the old neighborhood unemployed and without prospects, is just a crime away from being a two-striker and then committing the third. “Deindustrialization has eliminated jobs people took after prison,” he said.

The journalists’ challenge, said Connie Rice, is “to connect the dots,” to put all these elements into a coherent, compelling story.

That’s a big challenge, and journalism may not be up to it. At the end of the meeting, the hard facts of life in today’s media climate intruded. One reporter said her editors weren’t interested in the subject because they didn’t think the readers cared. Another was a court reporter who wanted to explore how the system works on the streets. But her beat includes two courthouses, separated by many miles in a sprawling county. I doubt whether she has much time for prowling the streets. A third reporter talked about the strains imposed on the remaining members of a staff hit by layoffs.

Add to those obstacles Internet editors’ demands for quick and numerous short stories that will produce more hits and page views.

Despite the challenges, I left the room tremendously impressed with the energy of the reporters. One said he had thought of 21 story ideas during the symposium.

The journalists are today’s civil rights reporters, engaged in a job as big and challenging, but much more unglamorous, than that of an earlier generation. During the civil rights movement, it was easy to get people worked up about an African-American kid barred from a school or a church burned down. Today, it is almost impossible to stimulate the interest of editors and audiences in a black or Latino ex-convict hoping for a fresh chance rather than a third strike.

*Originally posted at Truthdig. Re-posted with written permission from Bill Boyarsky. 

Bill Boyarsky is a lecturer in journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and is vice president of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission. A former city editor, columnist, bureau chief and political writer for the Los Angeles Times , he was a member of reporting teams that won three Pulitzer prizes. In 2010, the Los Angeles Press Club honored his political columns at Truthdig by naming him as Online Journalist of the Year.

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