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War on Crime: Reform of Three Strikes Being Considered


Another initiative to reform California’s “three strikes” law is being considered by a spectrum of advocates ranging from family members to Republican fiscal-conservatives. If funding and a consensus on strategy are obtained, the ballot measure would require that third-strike felonies be serious and violent. The reform would likely be placed on the November 2012 statewide ballot.

A 2004 reform measure was leading 3-1 among likely voters before a massive campaign by leaders including former-Gov. Pete Wilson, then-Attorney General Jerry Brown, and San Francisco City Attorney Kamala Harris barely prevented its passage. Both liberal Democrats sided with the state law enforcement lobby, apparently in order to appear tough-on-crime.

The original three-strikes initiative passed overwhelmingly in 1994. As of January 1, 2011, there were about 41,000 state prison inmates held under the law, or 25 percent of the total inmate population. According to the California Department of Corrections, 47 percent of all inmate-strikers were convicted of non-serious or nonviolent offenses.[1] A term of 25 years, at current costs of $40-50,000 per year, means the cost to taxpayers of holding a single third-striker is one million dollars. According to CDC figures, the average cost per year for inmates over age 55 is $134,000.

As California’s prison population shrinks for legal or economic reasons, the percentage of second- and third-strikers in the prisons may become a majority in two decades.  

A study by Dr. Mike Males for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice [April 2011] indicates no demonstrable effects of three-strike laws on crime rates. Counties like Kern, which incarcerate strike offenders at the highest rates statewide, experienced lesser reductions in violent crime than San Francisco, which rarely uses the law. “Virtually no evidence could be found supporting the law’s deterrent or selective incapacitation effect on targeted populations or in the jurisdictions most affected.” Males concluded.[2] 


[1] California Legislative Analyst's Office. May 2, 2011.

[2] Males, Mike, Ph.D. “Striking Out: California’s ‘Three Strikes and You’re Out’ Law Has Not Reduced Violent Crime. An Update." Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice. April, 2011.  

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