Soundings

Matthew Robinson
Felons Anonymous
Winter 1996

April 6 was the last time Steven White rebelled against civilized society. The 32- year-old San Diegan barricaded himself in a down-and-out Las Vegas hotel room where cops had cornered him after he fled to the Silver State hoping to escape trial for petty theft. Agitated and scared, in a Tarantino-esque twist, White started shooting the doors and windows, hoping police snipers would kill him. He wasn't about to do 25-to-life for stealing a $146 VCR.

The crime was his third felony, and California’s new “three strikes” law would send him up the river for a very long time. So frightening was this prospect that White finally killed himself with a shot to the chest. Liberals pointed out that White's convictions were for nonviolent crimes: burglary and attempted burglary. But as a drug-using habitual offender who had led a life of crime since adolescence, White wasn't sympathetic enough to become a martyr of three- strikes.

What’s more, White’s actions before killing himself showed a consciousness of his crimes that belied the views of the blame-society crowd. White wrote three suicide notes. Two were apologies: one to his family for his life of crime, the other to police for causing them so much trouble. The third note was to the people of California explaining his death wish: “This all happened [because] of the 3 strikes law. . . . 25-to-life for a VCR. . . . Fuck that.”

This young felon had finally realized that there were consequences to his actions and the moral choices he had made. Other criminals have expressed similar surprise and regret on reaching their third strikes for crimes of stealing a slice of pizza, a $20 shirt, or a chocolate-chip cookie. Some say they wouldn’t have committed their crimes if they had known about the new law. The underworld is learning, though. “We’ve heard on the street that some two-strikers are leaving the state for greener pastures,” says a criminal justice official in Los Angeles County. In San Diego, parole agents report that criminals are establishing “support groups” for repeat felons who have the urge to offend again.

When California voters approved three-strikes in a 1994 referendum, they sent a message that they want a justice system that is swift and sure. The same ballot measure also increases penalties for second offenses and requires criminals to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. The results prove that criminals aren't automatons driven inexorably to crime by poverty or racism or other unfortunate circumstances. To the contrary, California’s experience provides eloquent evidence that a culture of individual responsibility can profoundly affect behavior.

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