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Californians Organizing and Moving Toward Action

By Doug Kieso

It's an election year in California, so you know what that means. The "tough on crime" crowd will try to give life sentences and kill more and more people, and most of the rest of the crowd will stand around like bystanders. Governor Pete Wilson is pushing for a new juvenile crime initiative that, once again, simply increases punishments. It has become so bad that retribution or "eye for an eye" appears "soft on crime" compared to what some people are receiving for sentences in California.

Foster Morris, 56, was sentenced on February 20, 1998 to 25 years-to-life sentence under the Three Strikes law for buying a macadamia nut for $20 (he was charged under the Imitation Controlled Substances Act). Of course, we are told that having Mr. Morris off the streets will make the public a lot safer. It doesn't matter that Mr. Morris has lost both legs to diabetes, has suffered three heart attacks in recent years, and has a right arm that is scarred from cancer surgery, according to the Orange County prosecutor, "He can go in and steal in his wheelchair. What if he rolled into a jewelry store and stole a diamond?"

Mr. Morris does have an extensive criminal record with 11 prior felonies and has spent 28 years of his 56 year life behind bars. Some people may think that he had paid his debt to society and should be judged anew, but, to the "tough on crime" crowd, his prior record is proof that we should give up on him and let him spend the rest of his life in a maximum security prison. What do you think?

Mr. Morris is not alone. There are about 2,000 people in California's maximum security prisons with at least a 25 years-to-life sentence for committing a nonviolent or non-serious offense (which could be as little as petty theft with a prior, possession of drugs, or possession of stolen goods), and the number grows by about 50 people per month. In addition, California has about 18,750 people in its prisons serving twice the normal sentence for committing a nonviolent and non-serious offense under the Two Strike law and that number grows by about 475 per month.

For those of us who know about the United States prison system, these statistics start turning that knot in our stomach a little bit tighter. But what really turns up the blood pressure is when you learn how the government of California is helping create the situation.

Of the 156,000 inmates in California prisons, it is estimated that over 120,000 suffer from substance abuse, and yet the California Department of Corrections has substantial drug treatment programs for less than 3,000. Then the politicians scratch their heads and wonder why California has one of the highest recidivism rates in the world at 66 percent. So what is their answer? To increase sentences and build more prisons.

Combining California's Three Strikes law with its lack of rehabilitation has created one of the worst one-two punches in the world for anybody with a past record and is suffering from a drug addiction.

This is worse than war, it is turning into a new form of genocide. At least in a war, both sides are presumed to be able to fight back at each other in some way. In California, one side is fully armed with all the latest force, technology and propaganda on its side, and the other side has nothing.

What can we do to make things different? We need to start organizing and become more active. The politicians can get away with what they are doing because they know that no one will stand in their way. That needs to end.

We need to start finding other people in our communities who are also concerned and start forming organizations. We need to start going to elected officials, offices, look them in the eye, and tell them what we know and let them know that we are appalled with the situation.

We need to start appearing in the public. We need to start carrying signs on street corners and become a presence when any politician is in town for a speaking engagement. The organizations need to come together as coalitions and have Town Hall meetings and marches. In addition, we need to actively bombard the media with articles and news conferences.

In California, we have started an organization called Families to Amend California's Three Strikes (FACTS). What began as a handful of people in a few areas, is growing into a statewide organization with chapters extending from one end of the state to the other. We have been actively trying to push our views into the media and the face of the public. It has, however, been slow going and we still have a long way to go.

We can stop this new form of genocide but it is not going to happen by sitting around. If you are an addict, have a family member or friend who is an addict, or are simply concerned about the welfare of others who are being oppressed, please become active and try to make a difference. This will only end if we do something about it.

For more information about Families to Amend California's Three Strikes (FACTS), please call (213) 673-7120 or see our web site at:

Doug Kieso is a lawyer and is the chairperson of the Orange County Chapter of Families to Amend California's Three Strikes (FACTS). His email address is:

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