Research and nearly half a century of precedent have widely disproven the value of three-strikes-and-you’re-out, but change may be too slow in coming for Lester Mason.
The three-strikes legislation was supposed to act as a deterrent to violent crime. Instead, it was overly punitive and was a major contributor to mass incarceration.
Despite current understanding about the flaws in that legislation, it remains the justification for keeping Mason, 76, in prison for nearly 40 years.
Mason is frustrated and says earnestly that the law should never have been applied to his case. He admitted to three armed robberies that were the basis for labeling him a “habitual offender,” but says he was armed in only one case, never actually used a weapon and was convinced by a public defender to plead guilty to all three cases because he was told it would help his situation. Instead, it landed him in prison for life with no chance for parole.
The three-strikes legislation was based on the premise that anyone who committed three violent offenses was beyond rehabilitation. However, the legislation eliminated any discretion on the part of judges.
Peoria attorney Don Jackson has labeled the law an “archaic” penalty that needs to fade away into history like the death penalty and incarceration for cannabis.
Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell said this “tough on crime” attitude evolved in the 1980s and 1990s and must to be reevaluated today in light of current research. It doesn’t work, he said, and is a massive drain on resources.
“Illinois is one of the few states that does not have a true compassionate release program. Even the federal government has a program,” Asbell said, contending Illinois has a loosely applied practice but needs clearly articulated standards.
“We need a war on poverty not a war on poor people,” he said. “We need to look at the totality. Health, education, jobs.”
To those who label this holistic reevaluation of sentencing “weak on crime,” Asbell says, “The easiest way to explain this is through an economic lens. The cost for the geriatric population is almost double the regular prison population.”
Elderly inmates comprise close to 20% of the prison population; they need more care and medical treatment yet most of them no longer pose a risk to society. People age out of crime.
Asbell said an algorithm for evaluating prisoners could include a risk assessment that includes age, health, behavior while incarcerated, violence of original crime and education –– among other factors.
He works closely with State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth on measures to reform the criminal justice system.
“The cost of these life sentences is an enormous burden,” said attorney Celeste Stack who works at Hale & Monico, 701 Main St. “I became an attorney in 1986. In the ‘80s, the criminal justice system always evolved. That was the beauty of it. At that time, we thought these mandatory sentences were the answer. It’s not the answer.”
Stack said study after study has shown recidivism rates among elderly inmates released from prison is in the range of 1% or less.
“Mandating all these life sentences means IDOC should start building nursing homes,” she said.
“People change as they age. They mature out of crime. More than 99% of these people could function in society peacefully, and, like Lester, make a contribution to society in some way.”
Stack said she’d like Illinois to create a process that allows elderly inmates serving life sentences or other long sentences to apply for parole. That would return discretion to the local level.
But while the research mounts, Mason remains in Pontiac Correctional Center after nearly 40 years. He has no mental health issues. He says he has no record of violence in prison but his official disciplinary record in not a public document. A request for the document under the Freedom of Information Act was denied.
Mason said he’d like to return home to Peoria and live, at least initially, with one of his sisters.
Stack said in European countries, 15 to 20 years is considered a long sentence.
“That is adequate time for rehabilitation,” she said. “You’re not going to see sentences in Europe of 60 years to life.”
Removing the judge’s discretionary ability is a significant problem, according to Stack. She cited several cases in which she represented teenagers who were peripherally involved in violent crimes but received life in prison.
“That’s like a death sentence,” she said.
Mason is seeking a post-conviction hearing and a new sentencing.
There is legislation in Springfield that would facilitate that.
“There is hope for change, but it may not come in time for Lester,” Stack said.