When Sen. Joe Biden authored a 1994 tough-on-crime bill that would ramp up prison sentences for repeated felonies, Texas and California were already ahead of the curve.
Both states had “Three-Strikes” laws, which were put in place to fight rising drug use and gang violence in the aftermath of Nixon’s “War on Drugs” in 1971.
The consequences of these laws, particularly among black youth, are examined in Harvard professor Danielle Allen’s memoir “Cuz,” a story of the author losing her kid cousin to the California prison system and ultimately gang violence.
Allen’s story focuses on the case of her cousin Michael, a 16-year-old boy who fell victim to the state’s Three-Strikes law. After failing to rob a man’s car with a gun at a gas station, Michael confessed to the police of two other robberies that he was not on the record for. His honesty hurt more than it helped him.
The judge ruled that Michael committed over four felonies in one fell swoop, directly opening the teenager to a third-strike (he was technically on his fourth) that could bring 25 years to life in prison unless he took a plea deal. When Michael did, Allen and his family were devastated by the ensuing 13-year ruling.
“When you’re sixteen, the farthest back you can remember is only about thirteen years. That’s the whole of your life,” Allen writes. “Michael’s sentence was equivalent, in psychological terms, to the whole of his life.”
However, the greatest tragedy was Michael’s return to gang life after his release. Upon release, 29-year-old Michael was shot and murdered by a transgender gangster and prison mate, Bree, whom Michael fell in love with as a teen growing up in a cell, and shared an abusive relationship with.
“How could it be? How could it be? How could it be?” Allen writes. “Michael had made his life-defining choice.”
After his release, Allen argues Michael chose his toxic relationship with Bree over his family’s offers for a fresh start, such as sending him to community college, because he longed for the familiar comforts that prison nurtured him with.
Allen says Michael is one of many familial scars left all over the country from the ’90s crackdown on crime. Violent recidivism is a byproduct of sending juveniles to adult prison instead of rehabilitating them, Allen points out.
This phenomenon is not unusual, including in Texas. A 2011 study by the LBJ School of Public Affairs found juveniles who were sent to Texas prisons for adults for over a year were more likely to become violent and return to prison after release. The study also said on the national level, juveniles who served less than a year had a 100 percent higher risk of violent recidivism.
Towards the end of her book, Allen views the death of Michael as a bitter consequence of reactionary measures from the War on Drugs. Because Michael lost his formative years in prison, it set him on the path of no return and made rehabilitation more unlikely.
“When nuclear tests bombs are set off underground, they leave a crater on the surface of the earth that will collapse only much later. This, I think, is what the Three Strike laws and the constant upward ratchet in penal severity have been like,” Allen writes. “The people standing on the earth’s surface conducted their lives as usual. They figured out what was really going on only after the earth had cratered beneath them.”
- 243 pages
- Rating 5/5