In Oklahoma, for example, purse snatching can put a man behind bars for life
We hear all about controversial police shootings — and deservedly so. But finally, new attention is being given to abuses in prison sentencing guidelines. In a 10-week investigation, The Medill Justice Project has probed the complex issues involved in the three-strikes laws that have swept the country.
The so-called “three strikes and you’re out” laws are proving devastating to black men, many of whom are serving life prison sentences for a series of relative minor offenses. To be sure, men of all colors are being imprisoned other three strikes laws, but African-Americans are being hit hard.
In an excellent example of investigating reporting, the Medill Justice Project has examined not only three strikes laws, but also prison overcrowding, the costs of incarceration, prosecutors’ discretion in pursuing convictions and the case of prisoner Rodney Fisher, a Tulsa man convicted of multiple burglaries and robberies in the 1980s and sentenced under the habitual offender law to 52 years in prison.
In 2004, Fisher was found guilty of escaping from a minimum-security prison, yet again triggering the state’s habitual offender law. Typically, the sentence for a prison escape would range from two to seven years. But because Fisher had already been convicted of multiple felonies, the law allowed for the punishment to be multiplied. The range suddenly rose to six years to life.
Fisher got life.
Under Oklahoma law, those convicted of murder can serve as little as 10 years. A robbery sentence can bring less time than that. Some nonetheless say Fisher, now 52, got what he deserved. Others point to action in states that have reformed draconian sentences. In Oklahoma, leaders are beginning to grapple with the consequences of one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation and the consequences of its habitual offender law.
“The three-strikes laws raise important issues about crime and punishment in the United States that need to be addressed but offer no easy answers,” said Northwestern University Prof. Alec Klein, MJP’s director.
Three Northwestern University students at The Medill Justice Project worked in collaboration with Oklahoma Journalists for Justice, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization based in Tulsa.
Read more about the investigation at the Medill Justice Project.