Three-strikes law: a big error


An appellate court judge once likened Gregory Taylor, a homeless man who was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for trying to break into a church food kitchen because he was hungry, to Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo’s ” Les Miserables.” It was an apt comparison.

Taylor, who was finally ordered released Monday by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, is a symbol of everything that’s wrong with California’s three-strikes law — just as Hugo intended Valjean to represent what was wrong with post-Revolutionary France. Following convictions for purse-snatching and a failed strong-arm robbery in the mid-1980s, Taylor was arrested in 1997 for trying to pry open the door of a Catholic food kitchen where he was an occasional volunteer. Despite testimony from the late Father Alan McCoy, who allowed Taylor to sleep at the church and said the suspect was welcome there, he was convicted of burglary. Because of his past record, the three-strikes law mandated an astonishingly harsh sentence.

Taylor, 48, was sprung after serving eight years thanks to a pair of students at Stanford Law School working for a university project aimed at correcting some of the more egregious miscarriages of justice that have occurred since three strikes was approved by voter initiative in 1994. They succeeded because they got lucky, not because the law leaves much room for common sense to prevail. Fortunately for Taylor, the judge in his original trial made a mistake while instructing the jury, and his public defender neglected to bring up material facts about his background. Unfortunately for other nonviolent offenders still in prison, such loopholes aren’t always easy to find.

L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, the Republican candidate for state attorney general, has opted to avoid pursuing third-strike convictions unless a suspect’s third offense is serious or violent. That’s an admirable stance but one that should be enshrined in state law, not left to the whim of individual county prosecutors.

Hugo’s Jean Valjean was the product of a 19th century melodramatic tradition, a character far too good to be true: After doing 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread, he is redeemed by a priest and transforms into a kind of pre-industrial saint. We’re not holding our breath until Taylor, who struggled with homelessness and drug addiction for years before his long stint in prison, becomes a successful entrepreneur and mayor like Valjean, or sacrifices his freedom to save an innocent man. But a central message of “Les Miserables” still holds true for modern-day policymakers, prisoners and voters: Unjust laws demean those who make them more than those convicted under them.