Two months ago, Gary Ewing died at the age of forty-nine from pneumonia and colon cancer. Chances are, you’ve never heard of Ewing. Until recently neither had I. But his life and death are a kind of parable about the absurd lengths that fear and the desire to be safe at any cost will drive a society.
Like so many others in prison, Ewing was part of the crack cocaine epidemic. He was first arrested at 22 for theft and received a six-month suspended sentence. His second felony conviction, for grand theft auto, came four years later. He served a year in jail and three more on probation.
Then, in 2000, he entered the pro shop at the El Segundo Golf Course in California. He took three clubs, with a total value of $1,200, stuffed them down his pants leg and tried to walk out of the shop. An employee saw him limping suspiciously and called the police.
Clearly, whatever else Ewing may have been, “criminal mastermind” was not of them. Nor was he especially dangerous, except perhaps to himself.
None of this mattered, because under California’s “three-strikes” law, stuffing $1,200 worth of golf clubs down his pants earned Ewing life without the possibility of parole. Let me repeat: Life in prison for stealing golf clubs.
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