The Real Victims of California's Three-Strikes Laws are the Taxpayers It's Too Expensive
"Three-Strikes" has become the poster child of the get tough on crime proponents. Numerous states have passed Three-Strikes laws, and California has the toughest version. Advocates for these laws claim they have lowered crime. But have they? Those aware of history are now questioning these claims, as statistics continue to concur with centuries of data showing the crime rate to cycle with demographics and economics--with punishment having little long term effect. Only effective and meaningful rehabilitation programs lower recidivism--not harsh punishment. This was clearly pointed out in the November, 2003, Little Hoover Commission Report, where California's single minded focus on punishment was called a $5.2-billion-a-year-failure.
During the height of Three-Strikes propaganda we enjoyed a near runaway economy, resulting in more jobs, and therefore, less crime. We have just gone through a sinking economy, resulting in less jobs, and therefore, more crime among the poor. Three-Strikes has little to do with the real reasons for changes in crime rates, economics and demographics have the greatest influence. A simplistic formula that has proven true throughout history can be expressed as: the crime rate will be directly proportional to the number of citizens in a society who are under 25 years of age (demographics), and inversely proportional to the number of jobs available to those citizens (economics). History shows that when people don't have jobs they steal--always have and always will. From stealing food, other crimes soon follow, and with little concern for punishment. Anyone who has ever been truly hungry understands this. The formula is complicated by drug culture problems unique to that group, but overall, crime rates follow demographics and economics.
With Three-Strikes, you are actually dealing with a sub-category of crime statistics--recidivism. To this group one must add a third factor--rehabilitation. The Little Hoover Commission Report provided statistics showing the recidivism rate in California, at 67%, to be almost double that of the national average, 35%. Most of the other states do not have Three-Strikes, so it becomes apparent that Three-Strikes has little deterring effect on recidivism. Thus, the question becomes, is the dismal return worth the enormous costs to taxpayers?
Three-Strikes brings other potential problems. Compared to some of history's barbaric punishments that also had little deterrent value, Three-Strikes is quite civilized. At least, so far we haven't reinstated lopping off body parts as punishment. As shown throughout history, the more onerous the punishment, the greater the violence. Recent statistics in the Three-Strikes states also show this same pattern, as we now see an alarming increase in violence against law enforcement. Citizens are also at greater risk, since a dead victim or witness can't talk, the public should be concerned about their safety from desperate criminals facing too harsh a punishment.
Notwithstanding the huge economics costs and violence costs to society resulting from California's harsh application of Three-Strikes, there appears to be a fundamental fairness problem in the inconsistency of the implementation of Three-Strikes laws that goes to the very core of original American values, and similar to the tyranny our forefathers were escaping when they fought for those values.
Statistics show a disproportion of economically disadvantaged and persons of color facing Three-Strikes punishment, as well as no consistency in how the various jurisdictions apply Three-Strikes. In California, a Three-Strikes eligible person who steals to obtain food is likely only to be prosecuted for stealing food in San Francisco. That person has best not steal food in most other counties. This is a simplistic example, but the point being, how does one draw the line fairly and equally to all under the present law? When does the crime become severe enough to evoke the Three-Strikes penalty? There is little consistency between jurisdictions.
These questions and problems along with costs fuel arguments for Three-Strikes reform. The present law gives prosecutors in the various jurisdictions in California discretion to choose whom to target. Initially, the prosecutors had all the power and were dictating to the judges. In 1996, the California Supreme Court in the case People v. Superior Court (Romero), (1996) 13 Cal. 4th 497, gave discretion to judges. However, the actual criteria still varies from judge to judge, from prosecutor to prosecutor, and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction around the state. All the other Three Strikes states require that all three strikes be violent felonies. Not California, where the third strike can be a misdemeanor. This because prosecutors have been granted the authority to elevate misdemeanors such as shoplifting ("Petty Theft") to felonies. These changeable by prosecutorial discretion crime statutes are known as "wobblers," and were recently before the U.S. Supreme Court. In lengthy decisions, following a growing federalism trend, the Justices essentially refused to become involved in judicial activism. Instead, they inferred that changes to these laws should be undertaken by the legislatures' of the states, not the judiciary.
In addition to the fundamental fairness in Three-Strikes law application problem, there is also the economic cost to society of keeping a shoplifter in prison for a minimum of 25 years at an approximate cost in excess of $30,000 per year per inmate. The exact cost number being shrouded in creative statistics is thought to be much higher for long term inmates due to increased security, and then high medical costs for aging inmates.
Presently, there are about 340 Three-Strikes inmates in California prisons whose third strikes was for "Petty Theft." To keep them in prison is a total taxpayer cost of ($30,000 x 340 = $10,200,000) Ten Million Two Hundred Thousand Dollars per year. To keep these 340 shoplifters in prison for 25 years will cost ($30,000 x 340 x 25 = $255,000,000), Two Hundred and Fifty Five Million Dollars total, or $750,000 dollars to keep each one for 25 years, and that is based on today's costs assuming that inflation does not increase costs.
There are probably many other Three-Strikes "Wobbler" convicted inmates, making the costs in the billions of dollars. Presently, there are about 7100 total Three-Strikes inmates in California prisons. That is a total taxpayer cost of $30,000 x 7100 = $213,000,000) Two Hundred and Thirteen Million Dollars per year. To keep these 7100 for 25 years costs ($30,000 x 7100 x 25 = $5,325,000,000) Five Billion Three Hundred and Twenty Five Million Dollars. And remember, the number of Three-Strikes inmates has a huge increases every year.
The real victim here is the taxpayer. Particularly in the case of shoplifters whose total cost in stolen merchandise amounts to only a few thousand dollars, but whose punishment costs hundreds of millions of dollars. Historically, prevention and rehabilitation have been shown to be far cheaper than the alternative, e.g., fire prevention is far cheaper than fire damage. The same is true with crime prevention through education and rehabilitation. California's education system should be the priority, not its prison system. The prison system should change its mission from punishment to rehabilitation.
Presently, with tight budget money, education is being denied funds in order to pay for Three-Strikes and other excessively long incarceration schemes. It is time for the taxpayer to demand the changes necessary to bring the system into a balance that will provide effective returns for the costs, fundamental fairness, crime prevention, rehabilitation, and severe punishment only to those truly deserving.
Inmate Tom Watson Shasta County Jail 1655 West Street Redding, CA 96001