Three strikes, he’s in

An imprisoned writer explains why life sentences for shoplifters and drug addicts don’t make sense

Illustration By Diana Bryan

Eugene Alexander Dey is a native Sacramentan serving 26 to life for a nonviolent drug offense under California’s three-strikes law.

They say a criminal always returns to the scene of the crime. As I approached the place where I was arrested near the Antelope exit on Highway 80, an enormous sense of loss overwhelmed me. I felt like I was viewing the spot where I was killed.

This was the second day of a two-day journey from one end of the state to the other. Shackled at the waist and again at the ankles, I was a state prisoner in transit from a correctional facility in Southern California to another in Susanville. The experience of seeing my hometown was almost too much to bear. It has been six long years.

I am a “three strikes” drug offender serving a sentence of 26 years to life for possession of methamphetamine. Ten years into this heavy-handed social experiment, stories like mine are all too common. Regardless of what the proponents of this draconian legislation profess, my only crime is that I am a man with a past. People like me are not criminals. We are collateral damage in the war on drugs.

The three-strikes law is not an entirely misguided concept. If someone has perpetrated three acts of violence on three separate occasions, then, by all means, bring down on them the full weight of the criminal-justice system. This is more than enough for any society to endure. At some point, enough is enough.

But California has gone too far. It has included any felony in the language of the statute. This covers too much ground. If someone has two or more serious or violent felony priors and finds himself arrested for a bad check, drunken driving or a drug charge, he is automatically eligible for a life sentence. Only California applies this type of sentencing mandate in such a manner.

My background is common among three-strikes offenders. It involves robbery, burglary and drugs.

My introduction to the criminal-justice system began in 1984, when I was 18. An accomplice and I robbed a North Highlands convenience store. No one was injured, and I was sentenced to a year in the county jail.

In 1988, I was sentenced to a 12-year prison term for two separate residential burglaries. Again, no one was harmed during these offenses.

Because addiction to methamphetamine was the root cause of my deviance, I chose to rehabilitate myself. At that time, state prisons offered a number of incentives and programs. I took advantage of them all.

By the time I was paroled from prison in 1994, I was college-educated and a published writer. I had made a break with my antisocial past and left prison a better man. The felonious youngster who committed those crimes no longer existed.

The college programs then offered by the California Department of Corrections (CDC) provided prisoners with the opportunity to change for the better. A college education gives a convicted felon an opportunity to assimilate back into society. That is exactly what I did. I closed one chapter and started a new one.

Upon release, I studied sociology full time at California State University, Sacramento, while I owned and operated a small construction company. I became a full-on multitasker and was moving up the socioeconomic ladder.

Sadly, after more than seven years of sobriety, I relapsed. In a moment of weakness, I started using again. In doing so, I reawakened a dormant disease.

One night in 1998, I was pulled over by the California Highway Patrol. They discovered a small amount of methamphetamine and marijuana in my vehicle. Ever since that fateful night, I have been treated like a killer. All I did was relapse. In my addiction, I bothered no one.

Though all nonviolent three-strikers have their own stories to tell, we all suffer from precisely the same injustice. It is simply wrong to incarcerate for life someone who has not committed a violent crime. At worst, we should be in community-based treatment facilities. We do not belong in prison—especially not for life.

The CDC of today barely resembles the prison system I entered in 1988. Almost every program of consequence has been eliminated. Post-secondary education was canceled in the 1990s, as were family visits and weight training. The few remaining vocational programs have been discontinued recently, and visiting has been cut down to only two days a week.

In addition, there are tens of thousands of first and second offenders serving lengthy sentences. Many of them are nonviolent drug offenders, like myself. Though they aren’t serving life, their prison terms have been doubled, and they must serve 80 percent to 85 percent of their sentences. As a result, correctional facilities across the state are teeming with nonviolent first, second and third offenders who are not being offered any meaningful programs or incentives to better themselves.

Treatment for the disease of addiction is slowly being embraced by correctional administrators. The CDC has begun to offer substance-abuse programs. Because only 8,226 treatment beds are available to serve a population of 160,000 inmates, only a small percentage of prisoners are eligible.

To receive life for addiction is bad enough. The injustice is amplified when we are excluded from both community-based and institutional treatment because of that life sentence. Contemporary correctional methodology is not based on logic or solid evidence, and it’s producing a mosaic of miserables.

Thousands of us, our loved ones and supporters were hoping for a favorable ruling in Lockyer v. Andrade and in Ewing v. California in 2003. Under California law, petty theft, a misdemeanor, can be elevated to a felony, thereby making the offender eligible for three-strikes sentencing. This is the most extreme example of the toughest sentencing law in the American criminal-justice system.

In a 5-to-4 ruling, the Supreme Court held that sending petty-theft offenders to prison for life did not violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Had three-strikes been challenged successfully in these cases, many of us would have tried to expand the scope of the decision to fit our cases. But it wasn’t to be.

Generally, the high court avoids usurping a state’s sovereign right to create its own laws. Thus, the state Legislature, and not the courts, is responsible for repairing this law.

All over the country, state governments are modifying or abandoning many of their toughest measures. Even Michigan and New York, which had some of the most severe anti-drug measures in the nation, have modified their sentencing schemes.

State governments are coming to the conclusion that being “smart on crime” means they cannot continue to support mammoth prison systems indefinitely. With California lawmakers among the toughest on crime in the nation, there is a lot of pressure on them to get smart, as well. Whether they will do so remains to be seen.

When the prison bus pulled into Susanville, I was in bad shape. Although the aches and pains from a 12-hour bus ride in shackles would heal, psychologically I was a mess. The trip through my hometown of Sacramento exacerbated my awareness that I’m not even eligible for parole until 2024. The painful realities of my situation stay with me morning, noon and night. Ghosts from past and present torture me in my sleep and stalk me like a Grim Reaper throughout the day. Welcome to my world.

Whether it be through a voter initiative or through legislative action, three-strikes needs to be changed. The goal never should be to set free predators and violent recidivists, but to close an ugly chapter of California history in which both shoplifters and drug addicts receive life sentences alongside murderers and child molesters.

Although I am sure an avalanche of drug-war advocates would disagree, I am not a criminal. I’m just some guy who had a drug problem and who wants to give his elderly mom a hug and a kiss as a free man before she dies. Is that too much to ask?