Floating Man

     A man floats in the waves, face up, clothed in black.
     Eventually he stands up and walks ashore where I and two surfers have made a semi-circle with hands out, palms up.
     He sits down on the sand, then lays down, and groans. He is giving up.
     He had just entered a utility room in a house along the beach in Oceanside and then tried to enter my place. When he saw my girlfriend Sanae, a diminutive Japanese woman, on the other side of the window, he fled.
     He jumped over a deck railing and dropped almost twenty feet onto a concrete walk between my house and the neighbor’s, breaking his foot when he landed. Even so, he ran on.
     He was high on methamphetamine.
     A short time later, pursued, he ran a few steps along the sand and turned into the ocean, hoping perhaps for some escape by sea, some redemption. It was Saturday morning at the start of the Labor Day weekend.
     On that cloudy morning, an off-duty Oceanside policeman was walking along the beach with his companion, each with a paper cup of coffee.
     He handed off his coffee and walked up to the man, asked his name and whether he had ID. The policeman leaned down and took a small, neat wallet and phone out of the back pocket of the man’s black jeans.
     The ID consisted of a neatly-kept social security card, visible in the center of the wallet when it was opened. The wallet appeared otherwise empty. The policeman handed me the wallet and phone.
     In the blink of an eye, handcuffs were on.
     The policeman handed one of the surfers — there was no surf that day so they were instead exercising on the beach — the remaining contents of the man’s pockets. They consisted of a single disposable razor, a small black comb and a dark leather cord, like a shoelace, no doubt to tie off before injecting.
     I believe that was the sum of the man’s earthly possessions. As deep an addict as he was, it remained important to have a neat appearance. He is 30 years old.
     I could hear the questions from the policeman but the answers were soft. The man said he was on parole, I heard that, and he said “third strike.” He was well aware of what faced him.
     He asked how much time he faced. “Fifteen years” came the answer.
     Grabbing the cuffs and one arm from behind, the policeman leveraged him to his feet. He was pale, 6 feet tall, with reddish hair and tattoos covering arms and shoulders. One stood out, saying in large letters, “Thick Cut.”
     He was marched, limping, up a set of public stairs to the street where police cars and a firetruck were waiting. One of paramedics asked when he last took drugs. He conceded it was that morning. He was asked how he took it.
     “Slammed it.” He injected it.
     Later in the morning, a policeman stopped by to talk to me and Sanae at the kitchen table. He was direct and human, as all the policemen in Oceanside had been that day. He said he normally works the homeless detail.
     He described their triangle trade: the drug users steal stuff, another group buys what has been stolen, and another group sells drugs back to the users who then steal more stuff.
     A few days later, the arrested man was arraigned in the Vista branch of San Diego Superior on two first degree burglary charges. In his criminal file, each charge carries the notation “third strike.”
     For a week now, it has been impossible to escape the images of that day: the utter hopelessness in the man’s defeat, his docility in dealing with the police, his knowledge of the penalty he faced.
     The charges, though, shocked me.
     The criminal complaint said on each of the two charges, “did enter… an inhabited dwelling.”
     At the first house, he had entered a utility room with no connection to the dwelling part of the house. After he was discovered, he ran to our house, apparently trying to hide. He took off a screen on a sliding window, but did not enter.
     How then, I wondered, had he been charged twice with entering an inhabited dwelling, since a key element of the crime is missing in both incidents.
     Any attempt to break-in to someone’s home should result in punishment, and it should be substantial. But in addition and most importantly the man needs treatment for a powerful addiction.
     The district attorney is clearly, in my view, overcharging, in order to gain leverage in bargaining with the public defender. Because of that leverage, the result of any deal here will very likely be years in prison.
     The three strikes law and the larger framework of determinate sentencing are the products of political posturing in the anti-crime politics of the late seventies and eighties in California, which are echoed in some of Donald Trump’s recent speeches.
     During that long stretch, politicians effectively took over sentencing, taking it away from the judges, so that punishment now is guided by old political dictates and does not “fit the crime.”
     And so it appears that this addict — and it is clear from his record that he is caught in meth’s maw like a stick between a dog’s teeth — will pay a political price for his offense, a price of many years warehoused in prison when he is, by his actions and his record, nonviolent.
     And so it is that per capita our nation has ten times more people in prison than any other western nation.

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