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'3 strikes' and Mississippi taxpayers out $40 million a year

This piece originally appeared in the Mississippi Clarion Ledger


Two days before Halloween in 1984, Charles Grayer kicked down the door of a Madison home and stole a video game, a clock radio, some tapes and some jewelry. 

Nearly 34 years later, Grayer still remains behind bars for burglary of an unoccupied dwelling, and the 66-year-old inmate, who suffered a stroke that paralyzed his right side, has no hope for getting out because his 1985 conviction came under Mississippi’s “three strikes and you’re out” law.

The cost to taxpayers so far for his life without parole sentence? More than $600,000. And that doesn’t include his medical bills.

President Clinton: 'Three strikes and you're out'

In October 1993, the nation was horrified by the abduction of 12-year-old Polly Klaas at knifepoint from a slumber party at her mother’s home in Petaluma, California.

Thousands of people joined hundreds of law enforcement teams in a desperate search for the girl.

Two months later, authorities arrested Richard Allen Davis, who confessed to strangling Klaas and led them to where he had buried her body.

Americans, already outraged, became even more so when they learned that Davis had a long string of violent crimes for which he had drawn little punishment.

A month later, President Bill Clinton mentioned Klaas during his State of the Union speech, saying those who commit repeated violent crimes should be told after their third crime, “When you commit a third violent crime, you will be put away and put away for good. Three strikes and you are out.”

Members of Congress gave him a standing ovation.

Three months later, California adopted the “three strikes” law, joining Mississippi, which had already embraced the law. Other states followed.

After time in juvenile detention, Grayer tries going straight

When he was just 8, Grayer began having sex, and by age 12, he had gotten a girl pregnant.

Growing up in Jackson, he struggled with school, where he had a habit of getting into fights.

He was suspended twice, and he soon found it easier to skip school than attend.

Picked up for truancy, he was sent to Oakley Training School.

After six months, he returned home but drifted back to old ways. At age 14, authorities picked him up for auto theft and sent him back to Oakley.

When he returned home this time, he married. Both were 16.

He quit ninth grade for good and began working.

He and his family spent some time in New Orleans, where he worked as a painter for his uncle.

In September 1969, he began working as a waiter at the Jackson County Club for $72 a week.

One day in February 1970, he was doing repair work at a house. When he went inside, he saw that two people he knew had tied a woman to a bed.

They gave him a set of keys and asked him to drive a car to his home. He did as they said.

In the eyes of the law, he became an accessory before the fact to rape. 

'Three strikes' sweeps up the guilty of not just violent offenses, but of nonviolent offenses

“Three strikes” promised to get violent criminals off the street.

But the reform laws passed were far more sweeping. Only one of the three offenses had to be violent to send someone to prison for up to life.

In Mississippi, the punishment was even harsher — an automatic sentence of life without parole if two prior felonies included sentences of a year or more.

And this drive for harsh punishment ended up including nonviolent offenses as well.

Those who committed nonviolent felonies would automatically get maximum sentences on their third strike.

Despite these automatic sentences, Matt Steffey, professor for Mississippi College School of Law, said prosecutors still have some discretion.

In the late 1990s, a Pike County businessman who wrote a bad check for $75,000 was indicted because he had committed a few crimes as a young man.

Then-District Attorney Dunn Lampton asked the company owed the $75,000: Do you want him to go to prison for life without parole? Or do you want your money?

The company chose the money. When the money was paid, the indictment was dismissed.

Psychological examiner calls Grayer 'sensitive, insecure and troubled'

Although Grayer did not participate in the rape, the 17-year-old still received 10 years in prison because Mississippi law treats an accessory before the fact the same way it treats those who actually carry out the crime.

Inside prison, he tested at less than the fifth-grade level and scored 74 on his IQ test, well below the average of 100.

A psychologist concluded Grayer was “a highly unstable and undisciplined young man. His contact with reality is limited, he is hostile and belligerent, suspicious, frustrated and depressed.”

The psychologist diagnosed him as having a schizoid personality with paranoid tendencies.

“Charles should be watched very carefully. He is impulsive, deceitful and resentful,” the report said. “He is likely to be a troublemaker.”

But a psychological examiner came to a different conclusion prior to Grayer's parole in 1975.

The examiner described Grayer as quiet and polite, “although he sometimes seemed to give up too easily on a task.”

“Personality evaluation revealed that he is sensitive, insecure and troubled,” he wrote. “However, he is resourceful and can make his own decisions when necessary.”

Third strikes affect far more African-Americans

As the years passed, studies began to paint a picture of those going to prison under the “three strikes” laws.

A decade after “three strikes” laws swept the U.S., a Justice Policy Institute study showed the odds were that those found guilty on third strikes were far more likely to be convicted on drug offenses than violent crimes such as assault, rape and second-degree murder combined.

The study also found that African-Americans and Latinos were far more likely to go to prison than white offenders for the same third-strike crimes.

In Mississippi, about 62 percent of those in prison are African-American, much higher than the general population of 37 percent.

The rate, however, at which African-Americans are serving “three strikes” sentences is much higher — 75 percent. And the number of black Mississippians sentenced to life without parole under the “three strikes" law is even higher at 82 percent.

“In my opinion, there may be explanations,” said State Public Defender André de Gruy, but the “three strikes” law is “still used against blacks in a disproportionate number.”

Released from prison, Grayer tries starting over

Paroled on May 26, 1975, Grayer tried starting over again. He married again, this time a teenager named Dixie.

He worked as a delivery man for a furniture store, bringing in $3.60 an hour, well above the $2.10 minimum wage.

He lasted three months.

He got an even better job as a cook back at the Jackson County Club, taking home $370 a week.

He lasted only a month.

He and his wife hoped for a new start, moving to Houston, Texas, where he became a boxer. He proved so talented that he began getting paid for his matches.

But before his new career could get off the ground, the FBI picked him up, and he was extradited back to Mississippi on charges he burglarized a home in Jackson.

Cost to incarcerate those guilty of nonviolent offenses under 'three strikes' law? $40 million

Today nearly 2.3 million Americans are in prison and jail — the highest incarceration rate in the world. Even higher than China, Russia or North Korea.

The nation’s prison population had already been growing for two decades when “three strikes” became a reality in 1994.

That legislation, along with other “get-tough” laws, helped to make the problem worse.

Between 1972 and 2007, the rate of incarceration more than quintupled.

Mississippi’s prison population has grown nearly fivefold since 1980 and now incarcerates more people per capita than all but two other states — Louisiana and Oklahoma.

In California, the state auditor conducted a study in 2011 that concluded the “three strikes” law for those guilty of nonviolent offenses on their third strike was costing that state $4.7 billion.

Although Mississippi has conducted no similar studies, nearly 13 percent of the state’s nearly 20,000 inmates were convicted under the “three strikes” law.

In 2014, Mississippi passed criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing the prison population and saving the state $266 million.

But in the wake of such reforms, more Mississippians — not fewer — have been going to prison under the harshest “three strikes” law, de Gruy said.

In the four years prior to the reforms, 44 went to prison for life without parole. In the four years since the reforms, another 58 have received the life without parole sentences.

Of the 2,160 inmates now serving maximum sentences under the lesser “three strikes” law, 1,300 are doing the time for nonviolent offenses.

Of the 358 serving life without parole sentences, 98 are there on convictions for nonviolent offenses, including such charges as drug possession, drug sales, possession of a firearm by a felon and escape, de Gruy said.

The annual cost to incarcerate those convicted of these nonviolent offenses? More than $40 million, which is more than the entire budgets for the state Crime Lab, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the state Bureau of Narcotics combined.

Grayer returns to prison; boxing helps him

Grayer had hardly whiffed freedom when he returned to prison in 1976 after another burglary conviction.

“He was both unfriendly and uncooperative during the interview,” the counselor wrote. “He refused to make eye contact except on a few occasions, and it is felt that he was not completely truthful in answering all of his questions.”

The counselor did note that Grayer “expressed an interest in working with the Recreation Department as a boxer.”

Grayer became part of the boxing team for the State Penitentiary at Parchman and later competed against inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

At Parchman, he completed his education, getting a GED.

In a 1976 request to reclassify Grayer, corrections officials wrote, “This inmate has been working and doing a good job.”

In a similar request a year later, corrections officials wrote that he was “a good behaved inmate and a good boxer.”

Parchman officials made him a trusty, and a psychologist concluded that he was a good candidate for vocational training.

The psychologist described him as “cautious, guarded, suspicious and unusually sensitive to criticism, … non-conformist, idiosyncratic. … At the present time, Mr. Grayer may be mildly depressed. There may, in addition, be mild, chronic agitation.”

Two months later, a psychiatrist interviewed him. He agreed with the 1976 report but found no cause for alarm. “Mr. Grayer seems to be able to compensate well, has adjusted satisfactorily to his confinement, and so far, he has created no management problem.”

California votes to reform its 'three strikes' law

In 2012, California voted to reform the “three strikes” law.

No longer would a single violent felony put people in prison for up to life in prison. Now it would be only if the new felony conviction was “serious or violent.”

And the 3,000 or so behind bars whose "third strike" conviction wasn’t serious or violent could be resentenced if the judge concluded that the individual did not pose an unreasonable risk to public safety.

The recidivism rate under this program: After 18 months, 5 percent are returning to prison on new crimes, compared to the 45 percent average in California, according to Stanford Law School's Three Strikes Project.

Assistant District Attorney John Herzog Jr. of Greenville, president of the Mississippi Prosecutors Association, described the “three strikes” law as important to authorities.

“For people that are career criminals that have just flowed through the system, it can be a valuable tool,” he said.

The 2014 reforms allow those convicted of nonviolent offenses under the “three strikes” to petition the sentencing judge for permission to take their cases to the state Parole Board.

Earlier this year, the Legislature adopted another change, permitting judges to give those convicted under lesser portion of “three strikes” less than the maximum sentence — if all sides agree.

Herzog said prosecutors supported this change.

Burglary victim: They 'put me through hell'

Grayer bounced in and out of prison, almost always on burglary charges.

He denied to authorities he had a drug or alcohol problem, but corrections officials  found a dozen marijuana joints in his clothing. The three-year sentence he received for possession of a firearm came after he reportedly traded a gun for whiskey.

On Oct. 29, 1984, police arrested him and put him in the Madison County Jail after he burglarized a home.

The victim, Linda Phillips, now 69, had been through series of burglaries that were a nightmare.

She began to be burglarized after she bought the house in 1980 — "little stuff" as she put it.

Those burglaries continued for nearly a decade, she said. “It was the worst time in my life.”

She is convinced a group of people were behind the burglaries. She said the last time happened about 1988 — after Grayer had gone to prison.

“The last time they took my furniture, my TV,” she said. “They took all my clothes, all my underwear. Everything in my drawers was gone. Fortunately I had house insurance.”

Those responsible "put me through hell," she said.

She wound up selling her house.

In 1985, Grayer was convicted of burglarizing her house and stealing some jewelry and other items. He received a life without parole sentence.

If he had been sentenced under the less harsh provision of the “three strikes” law, his sentence would automatically have been seven years — the maximum sentence for burglary under Mississippi law.

Instead, he was sentenced under the harsher provision of the “three strikes” law, which automatically gave him a sentence of life without parole.

Phillips was glad to hear he was still behind bars, she said. “I’m glad he got life without parole."

Clinton apologizes for his 'three strikes' push

Two decades after winning applause for “three strikes,” former President Clinton apologized for pushing the legislation.

“I signed a bill that made the problem worse, and I want to admit it," he said. “We cast too wide a net, and we had too many people in prison.”

And that led to another problem, he said, “putting so many people in prison that there wasn't enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out so they could live productive lives.”

He still believes the measures did good — putting 100,000 more police officers on the street and helping secure “the biggest drop in crime history,” he said.

But that came with bad news, locking up a lot of people “who were minor actors for way too long.”

Some point to “three strikes” laws as the reason California and other states began to see a drastic decline in crime, starting in the 1990s.

But experts say the decline in crime actually began a few years before these “three strikes” laws were adopted.

Grayer in wheelchair, seeks medical release

Under the 2014 reforms, someone convicted of a nonviolent offense under the “three strikes” laws could be considered for parole if the sentencing judge (or senior judge) gives that person permission to take the case to the Parole Board.

But the same Legislature that passed those reforms also reclassified burglary from a nonviolent offense to a violent offense, once again making Grayer ineligible for parole.

Since his conviction, he has repeatedly written the Madison County court, seeking relief from imprisonment.

In February, a fellow inmate wrote the judge, saying that Grayer was bedridden, uses a wheelchair and had “lost control of his right leg (and) his right arm and inmate Grayer cannot control his urine flow and sometimes defecates on himself due to a stroke.”

The inmate asked the judge to consider a conditional medical release for Grayer.
Circuit Judge John Emfinger responded, “The court finds that it has no jurisdiction to modify a sentence that was imposed during a previous term of court that has now ended.”

Lawmaker: 'Three strikes' reform could help Mississippi realize millions in savings

Mississippi is far from realizing $266 million in savings from the 2014 reforms, said Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville.

“If we’re going to generate those cost savings,” he said, “we need to look at the ‘three strikes’ law.”

In the last session, he proposed several bills aimed at bringing reform to the law.

One would prevent a prior felony from being used at sentencing if more than 10 years have elapsed.

One would require a jury, rather than a judge, to decide if a defendant convicted as a habitual offender deserved life without parole.

Another would require two prior felonies to be crimes of violence to warrant life without parole.

De Gruy said he believes those sent to prison for life without parole should be those found guilty of both a current violent crime and a previous violent crime.

The federal system requires all three felonies to either be crimes of violence or serious drug offenses to impose a life sentence.

Tupelo lawyer Jim Waide represents Patricia Brown, who is serving a life without parole sentence under the “three strikes” law after being convicted of possession of one rock of cocaine, worth about $20.

An automatic sentence of life without parole makes no sense, and judges should be given more discretion, Waide said.

“It’s a trivial amount of cocaine, and they are keeping her in prison for life,” he said. “It’s like throwing money down a hole. There’s no reason for taxpayers to pay for it.”

Simmons said many convicted of nonviolent offenses have been caught up in this madness: “I’ve had so many calls as a lawyer where people are in system because of house burglary or drug offenses or because of addiction.”

He said they are not violent people, but they are being punished as if they were.

Simmons said a judge permitted the Parole Board to consider his client’s request for freedom.

He had been sentenced to 60 years in prison after being caught with cocaine and marijuana.

After the Parole Board freed his client, he came straight to Simmons’ office.

“He went into prison when he was 19 or 20,” Simmons said. “It was one of the greatest days of my life.”


This piece originally appeared in the Mississippi Clarion Ledger

   

 

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