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Vote yes on Prop 66
A chance to beat back "three strikes" in California

By Sarah Knopp | October 29, 2004 | Page 2

The Green Party's Donna Warren on three strikes

PROPOSITION 66 on the California ballot November 2 has the potential to strike a blow against the state's unjust "three strikes" sentencing laws. The ballot measure would limit the mandatory 25-year-to-life sentence required under "three strikes" to only convictions for specified violent or serious felonies.

Since the passage of the "three strikes" law as a ballot measure 10 years ago, 65 percent of those serving second- and third-strike sentences were convicted of petty offenses, such as writing a bad check or stealing a videotape or pack of T-shirts. The strongest part of Prop 66 is that it would require re-sentencing for between 4,100 and 26,000 of the inmates serving these draconian sentences.

Families could see their loved ones released on time served. The measure's sponsors hope that it will reduce spending on California's $6 billion-a-year prison industry.

The effort to change "three strikes" sentencing was spearheaded by groups like Families to Amend California's Three Strikes (FACTS). Donna Warren, a member of FACTS and a leading member of the Green Party Black Caucus, told Socialist Worker, "We tried to get an amendment to three strikes on the ballot three times [since 1994]. This time, I'm very optimistic it will pass for one simple reason--because the law as it is written and applied by the district attorneys is egregiously harsh. It doesn't make sense and voters know this. Voters heard how petty thieves are being sentenced to 25 years and longer for petty theft."

There are problems with Prop 66. First, it doesn't reject the fundamental premises of the three strikes law, but instead tries to amend it. Groups writing an opinion in favor of the proposition in California's Voter Information Guide argued, "Prop 66 will restore Three Strikes to what voters originally intended." This ignores the fact that the law is fundamentally unjust and unconstitutional.

Second, the proposition has an add-on that increases punishment for specified sex crimes against children. Presumably written in as a way to appeal to more conservative voters, the provision weakens Prop 66. It fails to address any of the issues behind such crimes, and we know from bitter experience that any measure to lock people up for a longer time will be used disproportionately against the poor and people of color.

However, Prop 66 is seen throughout the state as a referendum on whether we should continue to lock up nonviolent offenders for 25 years to life. A "yes" vote is seen by all--including the family members of the incarcerated who pushed for the proposition--as a strike against the trend of ever-growing levels of incarceration. For that reason, Socialist Worker readers should vote "yes."

If Prop 66 passes, says Donna Warren, "Our work is not done, and we know it. We will start discussions on November 3rd to figure out what our next step is--will it be to abolish the law, or to bring down the criminal injustice system? Prisons are obsolete, they're class oppressive, they're racist, and they benefit only a certain class."

The Green Party's Donna Warren on three strikes:
"A war against poor communities of color"

October 29, 2004

DONNA WARREN is a leader of the Green Party Black caucus, was the party's candidate for lieutenant governor in 2002, and is a member of Families to Amend California's Three Strikes. She talked to SARAH KNOPP about Prop 66.

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WHEN DID you decide to become an activist against Three Strikes?

TEN YEARS ago, Geri Silva [the executive director of Families to Amend California's Three Strikes] and I were in a group called Mothers ROC (Mothers Reclaiming Our Children). Mothers ROC fought against the criminal injustice system, which systemically locks up people of color for little or no reason, while neglecting these same communities for the services that the government is supposed to provide--good schools, jobs, homes, infrastructure and health care.

Geri and I saw that the war perpetrated against poor communities and especially against poor communities of color were mired in an economic system that used poor people for fodder for America's illegal wars and for the prison system.

We knew in 1994, when voters, out of emotion, voted in the three strikes law that it would hit our communities hardest. What we didn't know is that it would be used almost exclusively for poor communities of color.

WHAT FIRST made you aware that there was something wrong with the criminal justice system?

MY PERSONAL experiences with my family--and especially with my son, Joey Patrick Warren--told me all I've never wanted to know about the criminal injustice system.

My son was a normal kid--seven years of little league, five of soccer, excellent in math and fair in other subjects. A normal kid who did normal things--like experiment with pot. This normal kid, this good kid, got trapped by his experimentation with crack cocaine.

And it was crack that the system used as an excuse to send my child to prison, time after time after time. Like any "good" American, I figured it was my child who was the guilty party. I was wrong. It was the government, the police, the prosecution, the courts--in short, the system that saw my Black child as someone not worth the citizenship of America, as someone who because he was Black and not rich, was to be targeted for the prison system.

And so Joey spent long and short periods in prison for being addicted to drugs. In 1992, when I returned from Europe, I had an awakening. In the Rebellion of 1992, I looked at my community with a new set of eyes and realized that while the people addicted to drugs had a responsibility, so did the government. The government, I realized, was responsible for my child being in prison while Martin Sheen's child was never imprisoned for the same drug habit.

It was in 1992 that I started looking for help. Until then, I had tried to appeal to the prison wardens, to newspapers, to elected officials, and ask for help for my child, who was imprisoned and often thrown into the security housing unit. There was no help for my son.

And so there I was, a woman who wasn't really poor, who was a professional (I have a BS in accounting), and who worked at a good government job. And my child was not given the opportunity to live a productive life because of the prison industrial complex and everything that goes with it--the racism, the class oppression, the disregard towards my community.

EXPLAIN HOW the idea of Prop 66 came about. What kind of people are working on it, and how long did it take to get it in the ballot?

WE TRIED to get an amendment to the three strikes law on the ballot three times. Geri and I wanted to try to abolish this draconian law when it passed in the legislature, the same year the measure was put before the voters.

So in 1993, Geri decided to start an organization to see if we could get the legislators to pass measures to amend or abolish this law. She started out at Holman Methodist Church with a small group of dedicated progressives. The organization started out as Amending California's Three Strikes, but then Geri had the idea that families need to lead the fight, and so Families to Amend California's Three Strikes--or FACTS--was born.

I joined the effort in 1994. At that time, there was a discussion with the families as to how we would fight. The families, at least half of them, had actually voted for the law. They liked the idea that violent felons would be kept off the streets, but they didn't understand why their loved ones were subjected to the law. If not for the decision of the families, we would have tried to abolish, not amend, the law.

This is the third time we've tried to get an initiative on the ballot. The first two times, we didn't have financial backers to get signatures (which usually costs about $2 million). Plus legislators on 9 or 10 prior occasions, tried to get an amendment through the state assembly and senate, but when it came out of committee, the governor—first, Pete Wilson, who championed three strikes, and Gray Davis, who was a whoosh--refused to sign even a study bill.

And why should they? The people that three strikes affects have the lowest voting records and are held in contempt by the American bourgeoisie.

IN THE Los Angeles Times, the report is that the polls favor Prop 66. Are you optimistic that it will pass?

I'M VERY optimistic that it will pass for one simple reason, because the law as it is written and applied by the district attorneys is egregiously harsh. It doesn't make sense, and voters know this. Voters heard how petty thieves are being sentenced to 25 years and longer for petty theft--at a cost to the taxpayer of $1 million per person.

IS YOUR work done after Prop 66 passes?

OUR WORK is not done, and we know it! We will start discussions on November 3rd to figure our what our next step is--will it be to abolish the law, or to bring down the criminal injustice system? Prisons are obsolete, they're class oppressive, they're racist, and they benefit only a certain class.

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