Adjusting sentencing guidelines under three strikes will help alleviate prison overcrowding and help California’s budget.
In 1994, California voters approved a law that was rather revolutionary in its time……as Californians are wont to do. We’re trendsetters in that way. The purpose of the “three strikes” law was a noble one: Deter violent crime—particularly from repeat offenders—by making each subsequent conviction even more costly.
According to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, under the original 1994 law, a felon with two prior serious or violent convictions who is subsequently convicted of a third—his or her “third strike”—would be subject to a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life imprisonment. Even a second strike conviction would carry a sentence that is double the term that would otherwise be required by law.
Three strikes was a law that was intended to take violent offenders off of California’s streets. As the LAO’s report puts it, it was intended to reduce crime in two ways:
First, extended sentences, also referred to as sentence enhancements, would remove repeat felons from society for longer periods of time, thereby restricting their ability to commit additional crimes. Second, the threat of such long sentences would discourage some offenders from committing new crimes.
A person with two violent or serious prior convictions could be sent to prison for the rest of his or her life for a third offense considered by the State to be a non-serious or non-violent crime, such as receiving stolen property or drug possession.
The law itself has become a political football of sorts, being touted by Conservatives as necessary in order to show felons just exactly how tough California is on crime. For many moderates and liberals it has become an example of a corrections system run amok, doling out life sentences for relatively minor offenses and costing the state tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars each year that could be spent more effectively elsewhere. Many argue that three strikes has led to the financial ruin of California.
The effectiveness of three strikes can be debated from here ‘til eternity. It’s easy to find multiple studies that tell us how ineffective the law has been in deterring crime, and just as easy to find just as many studies that say what a smashing success three strikes has been. The one thing we can be absolutely certain of is that three strikes has led to the massive overcrowding of California’s prison system, placing an enormous financial burden on the state.
In May, 2011, the United States Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison population by 33,000 inmates from 143,000 to 110,000, still well over the designed capacity of 80,000. The lawsuit that led to the court’s decision alleged that the severe overcrowding led to conditions—particularly relating to medical care and treatment—that amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the inmate’s rights under the eighth amendment. The Supreme Court obviously agreed. The state has two years to comply with the ruling.
According to another Legislative Analyst’s report, in 2009 the cost of housing one person in the California prison system came to over $47,000 per year. Multiply that by the 143,000 prisoners in the system and you get a taxpayer expenditure of $6.7 billion per year on the prison system. The prison realignment being instituted by Governor Jerry Brown and the California Legislature as a result of the ruling calls for lower level offenders—those with sentences of three years or less—to be transferred to local or county jails in the jurisdiction responsible for their prosecution in the first place.
That will alleviate some of the overcrowding in the prisons, and save the state some money. Current law places a cap on the amount of money the state will reimburse local authorities for the incarceration of inmates at $77.17 per day, a total of just over $28,000 per year. That will save the state a sizeable chunk of change, but since the cost of housing inmates varies in California from county to county, it has the potential to blow up some local budgets.
There can be no argument that three strikes has been hugely responsible for the sharp rise in the prison inmate population since 1994. The LAO found that as of 2004, “strikers” (those serving time in prison for either their second or third strike) made up 26% of the total prison population in California. That’s 43,000 inmates as of December 31st, 2004, that were serving time under the auspices of three strikes. Undoubtedly those jailed with either their second or third strike would have been arrested anyway, but because of three strikes, they are serving double the time or more compared to what they would normally serve under the law.
In this light, sentencing a petty thief or an addict convicted of drug possession to life imprisonment seems fairly ludicrous and fantastically expensive for the State of California.
Prop 36 proposes to make changes to, but not do away with, California’s current three strikes law. Prop 36 changes the sentencing guidelines for third strike offenders. No longer will a third striker receive a mandatory 25 years to life sentence. Instead, a third striker convicted of a non-violent, non-serious offense would receive a sentence that is double that normally required by law (similar to a second strike offense). For example, an offense that would normally carry a two year sentence would automatically morph into a four year sentence. Violent or sexual third strike felonies would still carry the mandatory 25-to-life sentence. That would include some drug and gun related felonies.
Prop 36 also allows for the resentencing of current inmates serving time for a non-violent, non-serious third strike. It doesn’t guarantee their release, but it does guarantee that a court would consider a resentencing should the inmate meet certain criteria. Lots of things to consider, including prior offenses, behavior while in prison, participation in rehab programs, etc. Current third strikers (those currently serving prison terms for a third strike) would still be required to serve twice the amount of time normally called for before they could be considered for release.
Overall Prop 36 would help California in two ways: It would reduce the prison population, thus reducing the overcrowding and help the state comply with the Supreme Court ruling. It would also save the state, according to the LAO, between $70 million and $90 million per year over the next two decades. But at the same time it does nothing to diminish how seriously California and its residents treat and react to serious criminal offenses. Violent offenders will be treated no differently than they would have been prior to Prop 36, should it be passed by the voters.
California instituted three strikes with the best of intentions. But as they say, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” California’s three strikes law has gone horribly awry, and is in desperate need of a makeover. Prop 36 is a fair and reasonable way to deal with serious criminals. A life sentence for a relatively minor offense is ridiculous, and it’s costing Californians tens of millions of dollars. Prop 36 still treats criminals with a firm hand, yet it will alleviate some of the heavy financial burden the state currently faces. California voters should vote “yes” on 36.
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This article originally appeared at San Diego Free Press.