The case for fixing three strikes
On the surface, Proposition 36 on the fall ballot seems like it should be a slam-dunk. That’s the initiative seeking to change California’s landmark Three-Strikes law, the 1994 measure imposing an automatic 25-years-to-life sentence on most three-time felons.
Proposition 36 seeks to change that just a bit, requiring that any third offense yielding the draconian sentence be a violent one. Its supporters say this would produce quick reductions in sentence for about 3,000 current convicts whose third strikes were sometimes as trivial as shoplifting or simple theft.
Pass this measure and those 3,000 prisoners, each costing $47,000 a year, will quickly have their long sentences reduced and saving the state a total of $141 million a year.
But Mike Reynolds, the Fresno photographer whose daughter’s 1992 murder helped spur passage of Three Strikes, doesn’t agree.
“We would see a whole new level of offender released,” says Reynolds. “These people had at least two other violent felonies before they got their third strike, no matter what it was for.”
He also insists that any savings would be illusory. “This law has saved $57 billion in crimes that were not committed … And that doesn’t even account for all the murders and rapes that have not happened in the 18 years we’ve had this law.”
Reynolds thinks freeing 3,000 third-strikers would lead to a new wave of violent crime.
That’s not what the research shows, according to the Three Strikes Project, a Stanford University effort that’s behind Proposition 36.
Michael Romano, the Stanford professor who founded the Three Strikes Project, which for years has also helped appeal harsh sentences against nonviolent three strikers, has claimed only 4 percent of persons serving life terms for nonviolent third offenses are likely to commit new crimes if released, about one-fifth the rate for inmates released from the general prison population.
One thing Proposition 36 would not do is reduce the number of geriatric prisoners serving life sentences. Releasing most elderly convicts could save the state far more than the $141 million Proposition 36 would produce, but the vast majority of the prisoners released by the measure do not fall into the senior citizen category. Many were sentenced while in their 20s, which puts them in their late 40s or early 50s, even when their minimum 25-year-terms are up, those people remain in an age category where violent crimes are a serious possibility.
Still, there is no doubt that holding some three-strikers is both unnecessary and often a waste of big money. The problem comes in predicting which three-time losers will commit another crime if released. This suggests passage of Proposition 36 would produce at least some additional crime, even if that comes at the low rate Romano claims.
One good thing about this initiative fight is that it’s being waged on the battleground of ideas, not via TV commercials. That’s because neither the “yes” nor the “no” side has enough money right now to stage a major campaign. Ideally, that’s how things should be for all ballot propositions.