There is a lot to like about California's three-strikes law, which punishes the state's worst habitual felons with prison sentences of 25 years to life. Twenty-five other states have some version of three strikes. But California's law is by far the toughest -- and it is the only state where the third strike can be a relatively minor offense.
How does that work? Under three strikes, first and second strikes are recorded for convictions involving any serious or violent crime. Violent crimes include offenses such as murder, robbery, rape and assault with a deadly weapon, but serious crimes can also include offenses such as burglary where there is no confrontation with other individuals. Crimes that draw a third strike, however, need not be either serious or violent -- they can include crimes such as petty theft. Today, about 4,000 of the 9,000 third-strikers in state prisons were sentenced for nonserious, nonviolent third strikes -- mainly drug possession but also things like shoplifting, joy riding and forgery.
We're not here to argue that minor crimes don't deserve punishment; they do. But not 25 years in prison (or more), when each inmate costs up to $40,000 annually to lock up. That, and only that, provision of the three-strikes law is what Proposition 36, which appears on the November ballot, seeks to change. It would revise the law so that third strikes are imposed for new felony convictions that are serious or violent. And there is one major caveat: Prop. 36 still allows third strikes for minor crimes if the felon has previously committed rape, murder or child molestation.
That's not being soft on crime at all. That's being smart on crime. That's reserving the harshest penalties for the worst criminals, which is what voters intended when they overwhelmingly approved the three-strikes law in 1994. And it will save $100 million annually.
If enacted, roughly 3,000 inmates locked up for nonserious, nonviolent third strikes would qualify for potential re-sentencing. Prop. 36 foes say this means thousands of the state's most serious offenders would be released. But that's not the case. The prison doors won't automatically open. A judge will have to re-hear each case and determine if the individual warrants a reduced sentence or even release. And, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's own data, the majority of third-strikers in prison today rank lowest on the recidivism scale: These inmates' risk of committing additional crimes are lower than nonviolent, nonserious third-strikers.
Opponents like to credit California's three-strikes law for the sweeping reduction in crime that we've seen across the state, but experts agree that no single factor has been responsible for crime reduction. Crime has fallen dramatically since the early 1990s nationwide, even in states like New York that don't have three-strikes laws. In recent years, district attorneys in Los Angeles and San Francisco counties have stopped pursuing third-strike sentences for minor crimes and crime rates there have continued to fall. In fact, according to state crime data, those counties have lower crime rates than Kern.
The three-strikes law has value in our criminal justice system but, after 18 years and with the state facing daunting prison costs, some reform is justified. The revisions in Prop. 36 retain harsh sentences for those who deserve it but stop wasting money on sentences for minor crimes that are far too long and costly.
We recommend a yes vote on Prop. 36.