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The Pitiful Poster Child

In the debate over the three strikes law, few emerge with clean hands

By Eugene Dey

I REMEMBER when my college professor Judson Landis, who taught sociology at Sacramento State, posed the three-strikes question to our criminal-justice class. I was 28 at the time, a few months out of prison and a published author on this subject in the Christian Science Monitor.

"It's the worst law this state has ever passed," I said, kicking off a heated debate. Ten years later, as a nonviolent drug offender serving a three-strikes life sentence at High Desert State Prison in Susanville, I'm still debating this law. In addition to litigating my case in U.S. District Court, I'm arguing against it in the court of public opinion as well.

On July 25, state Sen. Chuck Poochigian, a Fresno Republican, and I wrote opposing positions on Proposition 66 in the Sacramento Bee's Forum section. Prop. 66 takes some of the sting out of Prop. 184, the law passed a decade ago enacting three strikes. Prop. 66 would limit the kinds of crimes for which people can be sentenced under three strikes. The third strike would have to be a serious or violent crime, not something like attempted burglary, conspiracy to commit assault or arson that doesn't result in injury. Criminal-justice types oppose Prop. 66 while a number of inmate-rights organizations, the ACLU and Mark Leno, chairman of the assembly's committee on public safety, support it.

In the Bee, Poochigian claimed that the three-strikes law works as a deterrent. As he pointed out, the law was enacted by 70 percent of the voters after a young girl was murdered in 1992 by a repeat offender. I said the law was too harsh and called for reform, pointing out that more than half of the 7,372 three-strikes inmates were sent to prison for 25 years to life even though their last crime was nonviolent. (I've done six years of a 26-year sentence.)

Apparently, an actual three-striker taking a cognitive position against this fiercely debated topic hit a nerve. Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully, who struck me out in 1999, wrote a letter to the editor two weeks after my argument was printed, portraying me as a dangerous individual. "Dey wants us to believe he's just one of thousands of 'minor' criminals unfairly serving long prison terms for nonviolent drug crimes," she wrote. "His criminal history shows otherwise."

Scully enumerated my offenses, both real and imagined. I went on a "crime spree," she said, from 1984 to 1988, which included armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, two burglaries and possession of stolen property, drugs and a dangerous weapon. She also falsely reported that I'd been arrested in 1997 with 200 bags of marijuana, which was inaccurate.

There's no doubt tough-on-crime types are concerned about Prop. 66. Taking the state by surprise, Fields Research Corporation reported that 76 percent of 500 likely voters favored amending the Three Strikes and Child Protection Act of 2004, better known as Prop. 66, after the initiative qualified for the November ballot.

"Seventy-six percent is a huge, huge number," says David LaBahn, executive director of the California District Attorney's Association, who promised to fight the proposition.

Perhaps this explains why, a week after Scully's letter, Bee reporter Marjie Lundstrom said my "compelling story" led her to the county archives, where she found a 1-foot stack of court documents containing the side of the story I "failed" to mention—even though Scully had mentioned the same crimes in her letter.

"When he was arrested at 18, he was participating in an armed robbery of a convenience store in which his accomplice used a sawed-off shotgun," Lundstrom wrote. "Granted probation, he assaulted a juvenile with a knife in 1986—an attack which, his victim testified, resulted in 200 stitches. Then more crimes: Misdemeanor reckless driving. Misdemeanor weapons possession. Burglary. While on bail in 1988, he was arrested for burglary, misdemeanor assault and possession of methamphetamine." She ended by calling me a fraud for posing as a "pitiful poster child" for bad policy.

Robbery and burglary are a virtual death sentence in this state, especially in Sacramento. Tragically, I did slash a juvenile in 1986. But the charge was eventually reduced to a misdemeanor when it was discovered the juvenile lied about his culpability. Because it was a case of self-defense, I served 60 days. A misdemeanor is not a strike, and there isn't a second misdemeanor assault from 1988 as Lundstrom claims.

Though a criminal past is nothing to be proud of, neither is someone spinning the facts and taking the debate to the lowest common denominator. Both Scully and Lundstrom illustrate I had knives in my vehicle when I was arrested. Being off parole at the time, a knife in the glove box or a multiwrench on the seat is not a crime, not even in Sacramento.

"Welcome to the world that fear built," I penned. "In the coming months innumerable 'experts' will advance a myriad of hypotheticals. Don't buy into their pseudo science. While they claim expertise, I live it. While those of us struck out for minor crimes might not be angels, we are definitely not demons either."

To the fearmonger, it doesn't matter that I served six years on a 12-year sentence for two burglaries, a bail enhancement and a prior robbery. Or that I entered prison a 22-year-old high school dropout and left a college-educated, published writer. To them, I am an animal. We all are. Though nothing excuses a "crime spree" committed in my late teens and early 20s, I spent six years in prison paying my debt to society.

Indeed, a closer look is in order. When I got out of prison in 1994, I volunteered for the Prisoners' Rights Union, took a full load of classes at Sacramento State and started a small construction company from scratch. Then, after eight years of suppressing my addiction, six in prison and two on parole, I relapsed. After serving two parole violations in 1996 and 1997, I was arrested on this drug case in 1998 and have been buried alive ever since.

"Eugene enrolled in one of my upper-division classes in the spring semester 1995," Rodney Kingsnorth, Sacramento State sociology professor, wrote to the courts in 1999. "I remember him well. I can say ... that Eugene impresses me as someone who still has substantial potential to make a constructive contribution to society."

I had many such letters from professors, family and friends submitted to the courts on my behalf. Far from infallible, I am the human side of the three-strikes law proponents don't want you to hear. When a journalist follows a prosecutor to the courthouse in a three-strikes case, they create the illusion the worst sentencing law in the country's worst criminal justice system is actually sound public policy.

Objective journalism or election-year spin? When Lundstrom asks herself if I am in fact a nonviolent offender, she reluctantly admits, "I guess."

Unlike Lundstrom, I don't have to guess. I know with 100 percent certainty that I don't deserve to spend most of my adult life for a substance abuse problem I have been trying to control.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the September 22-28, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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