20 August 2010

Barbaric justice - Iran vs. California

Which is the worst travesty of justice: being stoned to death for adultery or sentenced to 25 years to life for stealing food? Both are barbaric, what is surprising is the countries that impose these sentences. We could easily guess who would practice stoning: Iran, for example, or Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. But many would be surprised that the country that sentences a man to 25 years to life for stealing food would be the United States, and in the great state of California at that.

Actually, when Gregory Taylor broke into the kitchen of St. Joseph's Church in downtown Los Angeles because he was hungry, he wasn't committing his first offence. Taylor, a homeless man, had been convicted years earlier of a purse-snatching and an unarmed, failed attempt to steal a wallet. As to breaking into the kitchen, the pastor of the church testified on Taylor's behalf saying that he was often given food and allowed to sleep in the church. The priest said he was a peaceful man struggling with homelessness and crack addiction. Nonetheless, trying to pry open the door to St. Joseph's food pantry was a third offence and in California that can get you, as it did Gregory Taylor, 25 years to life.

I don't know what drove Taylor to his "life of crime," but it isn't hard to imagine. The life of another victim of California's three strikes law, Norman Williams, is illustrative. Williams' third strike was stealing a floor jack from a tow truck. His two earlier offences were burglarizing an apartment that was being fumigated and stealing some tools from an art studio. Williams was the eighth of 12 children and was raised by a binge-drinking mother who pimped him and his brothers out to pedophiles for money to buy wine. When he grew up he not surprisingly became addicted to cocaine and lived on the streets.

Both men eventually got a break, if that's the right word. With the help of a Stanford University legal clinic, both Taylor and Williams gained their freedom after serving 13 years.

Thirteen years in prison for petty theft is better than being stoned to death for adultery, but it is barbaric nonetheless. The real crime is that two men so desperately in need of help, and living in a country with more than ample resources and know-how to provide it, were instead cruelly punished for misdemeanors that were nothing more than symptoms of their distress.

Iran is a benighted theocracy; the United States is a modern democracy. Taking that into account, California's three strikes and your out doesn't look that much better than stoning.

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