Thursday, May 03, 2007

California's three strikes law: schizophrenia + 2 bottles of booze = 25 to life

The Treatment Advocacy Center receives thousands of calls and e-mails each year from people desperately striving to help loved ones at risk because of the symptoms of severe mental illnesses. Although we were not formed to be a help organization, these pleas we cannot refuse. We inquire about the person’s condition and situation, and then offer advice, information, and referrals.

If the caller is from California, we ask one more question than with most other states: “How many strikes?” That is because California has one of the toughest “three strikes” laws in the country. In that state, a person can earn their first two strikes for serious or violent felonies. A psychotic phone call deemed by a court to be a terroristic threat is sufficient. The eligibility threshold lessens even more for the third strike: any felony will do. And a third strike means 25 years to life.

Three strikes laws are designed to keep habitual criminals off the streets; they are also vastly wide and deep pitfalls for people in crisis because of acute psychiatric disorders. The results are as sad as they can be absurd.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco recently considered the appeal of a man with schizophrenia who had stolen $68 of liquor from a market. It had gotten him a third strike and a 25-year to life sentence. One of the justices on the appellate panel called the sentence "barbarous.'' The other two disagreed and the sentence was confirmed.

If the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” comes to mind, don’t look for help from the U.S. Supreme Court. The nation’s high court upheld two similar, excessively punitive sentences ordered pursuant to the same California law in 2003. Both third strikes were also for theft. One man stole three golf clubs and the other two videotapes.

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