Cost of 'three strikes' law
Friday, March 5, 2004
IT HAS been 10 years since California voters approved the "three strikes'' law in an effort to get tough on crime, propelled in part by the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas of Petaluma by parolee Richard Allen Davis.
The law was supposed to sweep career criminals off the street by mandating sentences of 25 years to life, without possibility of parole, for anyone with two ''strikes'' -- serious or violent felony convictions -- convicted of any new felony.
But studies by criminal-justice experts show the law to be unduly costly, overly punitive, racially discriminatory -- and failing its primary mission to curb crime.
With 57 percent of the third strikes being nonviolent offenses, typically drug violations or burglary, the law largely hasn't necessarily targeted the most dangerous criminals. Third strikes are 10 times more likely to be for a drug offense than for second-degree murder. In fact, third-strikers sent to prison on a drug offense outnumber the combined total whose offense was assault, rape and second-degree murder, according to the Justice Policy Institute, a research and public policy group that has been critical of the law.
The institute's 10-year analysis of the law also found African Americans and Latinos were far more likely to be imprisoned than white offenders for the same third-strike crimes.
Since 1994, the number of inmates in the state prison system grew by 22.6 percent. One in four prisoners -- 42,000 inmates -- are serving life terms under the three-strikes law. About $8.1 billion was spent to house these third- strikers -- $4.7 billion for convicts whose third strike was not a violent crime.
"We're filling our prisons with people who don't belong there,'' said Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, whose reform attempts have been routinely rebuffed. "You can get less time for second-degree murder than for stealing a six-pack of beer. It's not what the public had in mind.''
Only the voters can repeal the three-strikes law. But the California Legislature, which has the authority to make changes consistent with its intent, should have the courage to at least require that the third strike be a violent crime.
This article appeared on page A - 28 of the San Francisco Chronicle