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5 More Years in Prison for Making a Phone Call

Rebecca McCray,
Managing Editor,
American Civil Liberties Union
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October 20, 2011

It’s hard to open a newspaper these days without finding an article about California’s myriad criminal justice troubles. From the Plata decision ordering the state to reduce the population of its prisons, to the hunger strike by prisoners protesting the conditions in the state’s solitary confinement units, to the rampant abuse in L.A. County jails, California’s criminal justice system is an expensive, ineffective, and inhumane embarrassment.

Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times highlighted yet another troubling story as parole commissioners tacked on five more years to the sentence of Dwayne Kennedy — for using a contraband cell phone in prison. Kennedy, who has been incarcerated since 1990, wasn’t using the phone to order a hit on someone on the outside or to organize a drug ring. He was excitedly calling his family to let them know that he had been granted parole and was being released.

Kennedy willingly admitted his choice to use the phone was “just stupid,” but his excitement at the prospect of going home got the best of him. Still, the parole board revoked his parole grant after the cell phone was found. Thanks to a 2008 ballot measure, he must spend another five years behind bars until he can go before the parole board again. Kennedy’s parole commissioners were all too eager to enforce the measure, claiming his eagerness to violate the prison’s cell phone ban makes him an “unreasonable risk of danger to society.”

For the last seven years, Kennedy has displayed good behavior behind bars. He also has a job and stable home waiting for him upon his release, two major factors that greatly reduce the likelihood he will reoffend and return to prison. But never mind those details. As the L.A. Times points out, prison officials would rather spend $250,000 from taxpayers over the course of the next five years to keep Kennedy locked up, clinging to fear-driven tough on crime policies that have made California this incarceration-loving country’s prime example of egregiously overcrowded prisons.

As the old adage goes, the punishment should fit the crime. Does a penalty of five more years on an already lengthy sentence really match the offense of using a cell phone to call your family? The answer seems painfully obvious to everyone but California.

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