A third look at ‘Three Strikes’
Part three in a series
There are as many as 3,000 inmates in California prisons right now who could be eligible for release if a measure on the ballot in November passes.
Known as the Three Strikes Reform Act, Proposition 36 seeks to change California’s sentencing guidelines. Currently, if a person has two serious or violent felonies, then a third felony of any sort will lead to a life sentence (with the possibility of parole after 25 years). The current law is the result of a ballot initiative passed by the voters in 1994.
The proposed changes to the law would impose life sentences only in cases where the third felony is also classified as serious or violent. As defined by the California Penal Code, serious and violent crimes include murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping and arson. Grand theft auto, for example, is a felony not classified as serious or violent, but grand theft auto with a firearm would be.
The authors of the initiative argue that the proposed changes restore “the original intent of California’s Three Strikes law – imposing life sentences for dangerous criminals like rapists, murderers, and child molesters.” The law needs to be amended, they say, to allow greater flexibility in sentencing for those whose third strikes are nonviolent crimes such as petty theft or drug possession.
Repeat criminals convicted of a minor third strike would receive twice the ordinary sentence under the proposed legislation instead of the mandatory life sentence currently enforced.
One of the most controversial aspects of the measure is that it authorizes resentencing of those serving out life sentences under the three-strikes law. Nearly 3,000 prisoners currently in jail would be eligible to come before a judge for new sentencing (and potentially, release) under the new guidelines.
A 2010 California State Auditor report found that 25 percent of the total inmate population are third-strikers and that, on average, they serve sentences that are nine years longer. A significant portion of the third-strikers serving life sentences were in jail for third offences that were not serious or violent, and the cost of housing them for the mandated additional sentences could come to as much as $100 million annually, according to a November 2011 legislative analysts report.
Sonoma Police Chief Bret Sackett, for one, is against the measure and urging a “no” vote. Sackett is also president of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chiefs Association, which is urging a “no” vote. “Our largest concern is the component of the initiative that allows already properly sentenced felons to petition the court for a reduction in their sentences.” An influx of convicted felons back into the community would, said Sackett, “put a tremendous burden on the probation department, a tremendous burden back on local law enforcement.”
If a mid-September poll is any indication, California voters may be ready to approve the measure. The Public Policy Institute of California asked 2,003 adults (of whom 995 were likely voters), “Do you favor or oppose revising the three strikes law in California to impose life sentences on repeat offenders only if the third felony conviction is serious or violent?” Of likely voters, more than 7 out of 10 (73 percent) said they approved, and 83 percent of Bay Area voters said they were in favor of the change to Three Strikes.
A similar measure in 2004, Proposition 66, narrowly missed passing after then-Gov. Schwarzenegger led a campaign to defeat it in the final days before the election. While that measure failed statewide, a plurality of Sonoma County voters supported it.