Because of California's Three Strikes law, a man from Redondo Beach, Calif. was sentenced to 25 years to life for stealing a slice of pizza.
Due to public outcry, he was released after five years, but his case has become a symbol for the problems of this law, which gives individuals a life sentence on their third felony. Right now, non-violent drug felonies are a common "third strike."
Californians are voting Tuesday on Prop 36, which would revise the law to impose life sentence only when the new felony conviction is "serious or violent."
Award-winning documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki came to California to advocate for Prop 36 and was on HuffPost Live (video above) on Monday. He said the US criminal and prison system is a money-making business that preys on the poor and often on African Americans.
"Fourteen percent of America is black. Fourteen percent of crack users are black ... The majority of crack users in the United States of America are white. So why aren’t they the people we see in the federal court houses?" Jarecki asked.
"That has to do with where we police. I have lots of friends who take drugs. They never see a policeman. They can barely find a cop when they need one," he continued.
Cheryl Contee, co-founder of blog Jack & Jill Politics, reiterated the racial justice issue. "The federal government found that in 2006, 2.5 million whites sold drugs as opposed to 700,000 blacks. Yet blacks are 11 to 12 times more likely to be incarcerated for drug abuse," she said.
In a late Oct. poll, 67 percent of polled Californians said they were in favor of Prop 36. And perhaps the strongest reason for this is the fiscal argument that, with less inmates incarcerated, California would save over $100 million.
Jarecki's hope is that if California passes Prop 36, the rest of the nation will also shorten sentences for non-violent crimes, particularly drug crimes.
"What we want to do is start a movement that makes 'tough on crime' and the 'war on drugs' ideas of the past," Jarecki said.
Jarecki's latest documentary, "The House I Live In," came out last month and takes a critical look at the U.S. war on drugs.