14 Years of Meanness: Repealing California’s Three Strikes Law


Fourteen years is enough. It is time to repeal California’s Three Strikes law, passed by lawmakers and voters on the watch of former GOP Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994.

The Inland Empire (San Bernardino and western Riverside counties) is headquarters of Families United for Prison Reform, of which Annie Smith is the executive director. She and scores of volunteers statewide are seeking to change the political conditions of California’s prison growth. To this end, their task is to gather 434,000 verified voter signatures by Feb. 25 to put the Sentencing and Parole Reform measure on the Nov. 2008 general election ballot.

This measure has two main parts. The first would roll back the Three Strikes law, which requires longer prison sentences (25 years-to-life) for individuals who have committed repeat, serious or violent felony offenses. The second part of the Sentencing and Parole Reform proposal would allow for the re-sentencing of prisoners convicted under Three Strikes.

There were 8,212 California prisoners sentenced under the Three Strikes law on Sept. 30, 2007 versus 7,945 third strikers a year earlier, an increase of 3.3 percent. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which now holds 173,000 prisoners (double the design capacity), has an $8.75 billion budget for the current fiscal year, or 8.5 percent of state spending. According to the non-partisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office, the Sentencing and Parole Reform proposal would lower such spending "potentially a few hundred million dollars initially, increasing to the low billions of dollars annually, primarily due to reduced prison operating costs."

On a related note, California is facing a $14 billion budget deficit for the coming 18 months. Accordingly, the math of the current prison overcrowding matter is simple, say the measure’s proponents. Cutting the number of prisoners would lower the number of state prisons.

That action would also reduce the state deficit by lessening the need to raise taxes for more revenues and/or to make cuts in human services. It should be noted that Schwarzenegger opposes an increase in taxes. So for him and the Legislature, reducing the CDCR budget appears to be the fiscally "conservative" thing to do. But there are many moving parts in this story.

One part is the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. Its leadership is clearly displeased about the governor’s proposed plan for early prisoner releases. His proposal to cut state spending this way would also slash thousand of officers’ jobs, as The Sacramento Bee recently reported.

No doubt prison reformers are keeping their eyes on this budget development. Smith’s group will need to craft a political strategy to deal with the political "juice" of the 31,000-member CCPOA, as its rank and file faces the prospect of unemployment in response to a fall in the prison population.

In brief, the political contours of what is unfolding around the fiscal crisis of the state casts new light on the standard narrative of Three Strikes law proponents, who have and do claim the moral high ground on the public’s legitimate right to be safe and secure. Against that backdrop the red ink is flowing for the budgets of California and its cities and counties in part due to the housing market crash and resulting drop in property and sales tax revenue. Annie Smith’s group swims in these waters of fiscal turbulence.

But Families United for Prison reform does not stand alone in its dissonance with the view that sentencing reform is an idea whose time has come today. Take a new study by the JFA Institute, which says policymakers have not made the public safer by locking up criminals for longer stretches. "California’s "Three Strikes" law has had a number of evaluations; almost all found that it failed to reduce crime," according to the JFA. The study, Unlocking America: Why and How to Reduce America’s Prison Population, came out in late November.

If crime reduction is not the outcome of the Three Strikes law, then public policy around prevention of lawbreaking needs to be re-thought. Earmarking public dollars for crime prevention would be a sea change from the current policies which focus laser-like on suppression and incarceration. For more information, contact: Families United for Prison Reform at www.californiaprisonreform.org and (951) 210-9149.


Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento.

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