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It’s time to re-examine the Three Strikes Law

ASK THIS | August 14, 2009

Most of those sentenced under California’s tough, 15-year-old system are drug users, not violent criminals. In addition, at a time when the state is going broke, long-term incarceration is very expensive—$1.225 million per inmate over 25 years.

By Galit Lipa

In 1994, California passed the Three Strikes Law. The ballot materials told voters that the proposed law was intended to keep “career criminals, who rape women, molest innocent children and commit murder, behind bars where they belong.” Today, however, the majority of people sentenced under this law are convicted for non-violent property offenses and drug crimes. California spends over two-thirds of its 25 billion dollar criminal justice budget on corrections. But the state is projected to have a budget deficit of over 40 billion dollars by then end of next fiscal year. We need to evaluate the issue rationally and ask ourselves: Are we really getting the biggest bang for our taxpayer buck by incarcerating non-violent offenders for life?
Q: Are the people incarcerated under the Three Strikes Law really the worst of the worst? Do they need to be in prison for the rest of their lives to ensure society’s safety?
Under California’s Three Strikes Law people who have two prior “serious or violent” felonies and then commit any felony can be given an indeterminate sentence of 25 years to life. This means that after they have served 25 years they will be eligible for a parole hearing. It doesn’t matter how long ago the previous “strike” was; it could have been before the passage of the Three Strikes Law or when the person was a juvenile. Someone with one prior felony will have his sentence doubled. About 25 percent of the prison population in California is serving a sentence affected by the Three Strikes Law.
The majority of the people serving 25-year to life sentences under California’s Three Strikes Law are serving sentences for drug offenses or property crimes: 
  • While there are only 145 inmates serving life for rape under this law, over 1,300 inmates are doing life for drug crimes. If we add “second strikers,” an additional 300 inmates are serving enhanced sentences for rape, but an additional 6,830 people are serving enhanced sentences for drug crimes.
  • 113 inmates are serving life sentences under the Three Strikes Law for second degree murder and manslaughter, but 732 are doing so for theft crimes.
Q: Do we really need the Three Strikes Law to ensure that people are appropriately punished? Why aren’t the enhanced sentences for recidivists sufficient?
It may be that someone who has committed a crime twice should be punished harsher than someone who has committed a crime for the first time. But the California sentencing scheme already increases punishment for those who re-offend. An additional one year prison term is tacked on to an inmate’s sentence for every prison sentence he has served in the past. If the person is convicted of a “serious” felony, the judge must add five years for each prior “serious” felony he has been convicted of, and if convicted of a violent felony, the judge must add three years for each prior violent felony.  
Q: Given that most of those affected by the Three Strikes Law are people convicted of drug offenses and property crimes, can we really afford to incarcerate them for life?
On average it costs $49,000 a year to incarcerate a person in California. Without taking into consideration inflation, this adds up to $1,225,000 for one person to be incarcerated for 25 years. A majority of that money is spent simply on security and administration costs. Given these numbers we have to ask ourselves, does it make sense to incarcerate a drug addict who shoplifts? Is there not a more cost effective way to deal with this problem? In contrast to the high costs of incarceration, it costs $4,500 a year to have someone supervised on parole.
We know that most inmates have significant substance abuse issues and only about a third can read at a high school level. Currently only 5 percent of spending on prison operations is spent on rehabilitation programs. At any given time, there are only enough drug treatment spots for about 6 percent of all inmates and vocational or educational programming for 12 percent of inmates. Instead of simply warehousing people for life, why are we not spending more on rehabilitation programs and requiring every inmate to either be in drug treatment, school or at work so that they can be released into the community?
Q: Why aren’t we considering reasonable revisions to the law that will save us taxpayer money and keep our community safe?
There are a variety of ways to adjust the Three Strikes Law so that it makes more sense in its fiscal and social impact. Here are three possibilities:
  • Require that the current offense would have to be a serious or violent felony rather than any felony. This would eliminate people receiving life sentences for drug possessions or petty theft crimes.
  • Create a statute of limitations on priors. If someone has remained out of prison and off parole for a period of time, their priors could not be used as strikes. This would recognize that someone who has proven that he can live for a long time as a crime free and contributing member of society deserves another chance.
  • Instead of the third strike being an indeterminate life sentence, it could be a simple tripling of the sentence. This would create a true sense of proportion in sentencing.

Rehabilitation Therapist
Posted by HS
03/12/2010, 07:18 PM

Both the three strikes law and the
newly passed "Marcy's Law" were funded by the Correctional Officer's union with the intent to incarcerate as many people as possible for the longest sentences possible to insure as many Correctional Officers jobs as possible. Both laws duplicated existing laws and, in the case of Marcy's law, victims rights. The motivation for the new laws was to increase the inmate population. Marcy's law has now made it virtually impossible for an inmate serving 15 or 25 to life to ever parole because they will only go to the parole board every 15 years instead of the 1 to 3 years that was the standard before. The cost to incarcerate will increase dramatically now that the federal government has found that the CA correctional system constituted "cruel and unusual punishment" for it's refusal to provide adequate medical care. Inmates now must be provided care and as the population ages due to the longer incarcerations the costs will skyrocket to the point that we can no longer afford to provide education to children or services to elderly. Regardless of how one feels about being tough on crime we cannot afford to waste this money or these lives.

3 strikes
Posted by Dee
11/13/2010, 04:13 AM

The 3 strikes law is the worst ever, for so many reasons. And I truly hope that people will take a seat and get a clear look at how they are out of line. There are other ways. Please spare lifes!!!!! I agree with Ms. Lipa

FACTS supporter
Posted by Mookie Miller
01/06/2011, 02:50 AM

Excellent stats given in this article. Many people I talk to don't care if someone is ensnared in this law till it happens to a family member.

I helped fight and WON my ex husbands three strikes case. He has 3 strikes for burglary and then
was arrested with less than a half gram of crystal meth. When we saw 3k on his papers, I felt sick!

With lots of support from family, friends and church, I gathered information to show he is employable and not really of the character that which the "spirit" this law was intendedto incarcarate. He plead guilty to 8 years and too it to Romero and we won!!!

This law is flawed and breaks my heart that in this great state in an even greater nation, we discard people this way. Treat them, educate them an let them serve time based on the crime!!

Agreeing with the 3 Strikes Laws
Posted by Leona Trotter
04/26/2012, 11:37 AM

I wholy agree my son is 22 years old and he was wrongful conviction of a crime and they gave him a drug sentences that gave him 2 life sentences. He did 8 years in there and I am from Delaware and I am his Mother. I am fighting this case alone and we the People feel something need to be done about it. And we are from Delaware and they do it up here to.sign in to kiababy69@yahoo.com

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