In August, Gary Ewing died at the age of forty-nine from pneumonia and colon cancer. Chances are, you’ve never heard of Ewing. Until recently neither had I. But his life and death are a kind of parable about the absurd lengths that fear and the desire to be safe at any cost will drive a society.
Like so many others in prison, Ewing was part of the crack cocaine epidemic. He was first arrested at 22 for theft and received a six-month suspended sentence. His second felony conviction, for grand theft auto, came four years later. He served a year in jail and three more on probation.
Then, in 2000, he entered the pro shop at the El Segundo Golf Course in California. He took three clubs, with a total value of $1,200, stuffed them down his pants leg and tried to walk out of the shop. An employee saw him limping suspiciously and called the police.
Clearly, whatever else Ewing may have been, “criminal mastermind” was not of them. Nor was he especially dangerous, except perhaps to himself.
None of this mattered, because under California’s “three-strikes” law, stuffing $1,200 worth of golf clubs down his pants earned Ewing life without the possibility of parole. Let me repeat: Life in prison for stealing golf clubs.
Ewing’s lawyers challenged the “three-strikes” law, enacted by referendum in 1994, all the way to the Supreme Court. In 2003, by a 5-to-4 vote, the Court upheld Ewing’s sentence. The majority declined to “sit as a superlegislature to second-guess” the policy choices made by California voters and their legislature.
As constitutional law, Ewing v. California is arguably right. As a policy choice, California’s “three-strikes” measure has been a disaster. No one understood this better and sounded the alarm more clearly than Chuck Colson and Justice Fellowship, the criminal justice reform ministry he founded.
In the months leading up to the ballot initiative, he warned anyone who would listen that measures like this one would do far more harm than good. While there were—and are—repeat
offenders who should be permanently removed from society, laws like this one were just as likely to sweep up petty criminals like Ewing.
The resulting harm would be two-fold: people like Ewing would be permanently discarded in their twenties, and California’s already critical prison overcrowding problem would explode, but not before bankrupting the state.
Time, of course, has proved Chuck Colson correct. Ewing died in a prison hospital surrounded by guards, and not before the state spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to incarcerate a man who, as I said, probably posed no danger to anyone but himself.
During that time California’s prisons became so overcrowded and their conditions deteriorated to such an extent that the Supreme Court, eight years after upholding the three-strikes law, ordered the state to release approximately 30,000 inmates.
Chuck was far too gracious to say “I told you so;” but of course he did tell us so.
The good news is that California voters have a chance to revisit the “three-strikes” law. Proposition 36 would do away with “three strikes” for offenders whose third felony conviction is for a non-violent offense. Californians are being asked to consider whether locking up a non-dangerous offender for the rest of his life, at an average cost of $50,000 a year, is the best option.
Chuck would say “of course not.” Not simply because it wastes money, but especially because it wastes lives. Like Gary Ewing’s.
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