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Proposition 36: Modifying law corrects horrible injustice

J Weekly
October 31, 2012
Joel Abramovitz

I was 9 when Polly Klaas was abducted from her hometown of Petaluma and murdered. As I was growing up in Northern California, the Klaas case seeped into my consciousness. I had friends from Petaluma. I was around her age.

I understood that when Richard Allen Davis was tried for her murder, there was a mountain of outrage that he could have been kept off the streets — and Polly would still be alive — if his prior felony convictions had put him away for life.

As a fourth-grader, I remember the fear and rage my parents felt in the aftermath of this tragedy; I remember them supporting California’s three strikes law because they felt they had to do what they could to protect their own children.

Twenty years later, I find myself in the position of working to convince my parents that their vote in the mid-1990s, while well intentioned, is no longer — and perhaps never was — just.

Under the three strikes law, men and women convicted of three felonies in California are automatically sentenced to life in prison. Because the law does not distinguish between violent felonies (like rape and murder) and nonviolent felonies (like shoplifting or drug possession), there are more than 4,000 men and women currently serving life sentences for crimes as simple as stealing a few pairs of children’s socks. California currently is the only state with a law that allows a nonviolent, nonserious crime to activate a mandatory life sentence. In California, first-time rapists are sentenced to eight years on average. Under the three strikes law, forging a check three times will get you life.

The three strikes law deprives Californians of a fair chance at restitution and rehabilitation. It ensures that prisoners will not be treated with dignity and decency or offered conditions and support needed to become contributing members of society.

What does it say about our own culture and our own sense of justice when we lock men and women away for life, in decrepit and overcrowded prisons, without any opportunity for redemption? The moral costs to society are serious.

Proposition 36 gives us a chance to change the three strikes law. It would amend the existing law to exclude felons whose three crimes all were nonviolent. Men and women whose nonviolent crimes, such as possessing tiny amounts of methamphetamine, necessitate punishment and rehabilitation would no longer be locked away for the rest of their lives, denied a chance at making amends.

Jewish tradition holds that prisoners must be given a chance to right their wrong by entering back into society. The early concept of prisons was to create separation from the society and a place for meaningful rehabilitation so the accused could reflect on their actions and make necessary restitution — and then go back to being productive members of society. After necessary societal separation they could find, according to theologian Samson Raphael Hirsch, “forgiveness and rebirth.”

In the medieval era, Jewish legal codes stated that prisons themselves were meant to be occupied only temporarily; no one was meant to serve time longer than considered necessary. The collection of legal opinions Minhat Yitzhak records a debate about whether a prison is obligated to put up a mezuzah. Neither side argued yes, but two sets of reasons were presented.

One side, Beit Hillel, argued that prisons themselves are not dignified homes. The other text, the Birkei Yosef, agreed, for “the reason is that these places [prisons] are made to be temporary dwellings, not permanent dwellings.”

Prisons are not meant for long-term residence; they are supposed to be a liminal space used to create change for the individual and the society. Today, we have a chance to tap into deep Jewish ideals to give over 4,000 people the gift of forgiveness and a chance at societal rebirth.

Under the proposed changes, Richard Allen Davis will not find his sentence reduced. His fate is sealed. But as I work to convince my parents — and now my friends, peers and community — that the three strikes law is unfair and unjust, I see that their horror 20 years ago at a horrible injustice has led to another injustice perpetuated across the state today.

As Californians, and as Jews, we must vote yes on Proposition 36 and offer refuge to those who need the chance to find forgiveness and rebirth.

Joel Abramovitz teaches Jewish studies at Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City and is a volunteer leader with Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.