When David Losa, 37, cycled into Lafayette Square yesterday in the scorching heat, the crowd at a rally for prison reform broke into wild applause. It marked the end of a 3,000-mile trip for Losa, who biked across the country to advocate changes in California's three-strikes policy.
His brother Doug was his inspiration. California law mandates a life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years for third-time felons convicted of two violent offenses. Losa's brother, who committed two convenience store robberies when he was 18, is serving decades in prison for his third offense: possession of a quantity of methamphetamines too small to measure, the scrapings from the inside of a couple of plastic baggies, Losa said.
"I'm not against locking up people for murders, rapes, child molestations," said Losa, a waiter from Santa Barbara, Calif. "But let's just save the prison space for those people, not drug users and petty shoplifters. Let the time fit the crime."
Losa was among about 100 people at yesterday's demonstration, many previously incarcerated or family members of prisoners. With T-shirts that read "Department of Injustice, Guilty Until Proven Innocent," they spoke about the need to change the prison system in a country that has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. They also condemned U.S. prisons as an abusive industry based on profit rather than rehabilitation.
"We've represented dozens of people sentenced to life in prison without parole for stealing a bicycle, writing a bad check or simple possession of marijuana. And it's that kind of sentencing policy that has resulted in the prison population growing from 200,000 to 2 million in the last 30 years," said Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer with the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama and the group's executive director.
The event organizer, Roberta Franklin, a radio talk show host from Montgomery, Ala., said she mortgaged her home to pay for the rally. Several years ago, Franklin said she began to receive letters from inmates at Alabama's Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women detailing their lack of medical care -- including one woman who said she weighed 80 pounds because the false teeth that she needed to eat properly were not provided, and another with ovarian cancer getting only Tylenol for pain. The lawsuit prompted by the conditions led to a court settlement last year.
Franklin said the experience was eye-opening and fueled a desire to change U.S. sentencing laws, improve prison conditions and shift the focus to education, poverty alleviation and rehabilitation.
"I used to believe in this system," Franklin said. Now, she said, "it's my belief when good people . . . hear the story of America's prisons, they'll be disgusted."