Three Strikes Law Under Fire

SACRAMENTO — Some criminal justice experts are pushing for an overhaul of California’s three-strikes law, saying it has increased incarceration costs, contributed to the state’s prison crowding problem and resulted in harsher sentences than were warranted.

They say now is the time to change the law, particularly because California faces chronic deficits and a court order to reduce its prison population by 37,000 over the next two years.

The Legislature and voters approved three strikes a year after repeat felon Richard Allen Davis abducted and murdered 12-year-old Polly Klaas in 1993. Polly’s murder outraged the nation when it was revealed that Davis was a repeat felon and had been wanted on a parole violation. The California law, intended to keep habitual violent offenders behind bars, became one of the harshest sentencing laws in the nation.

The law requires enhanced punishment for repeat offenders: Second strikers face double the normal sentence while third strikers can get sentences of 25 years to life, regardless of whether the third crime is violent or serious.

About 41,100 of the state’s approximately 143,500 prison inmates are second and third strikers.

Supporters say it’s crucial to lock up repeat offenders even if their third crime is not serious because career criminals commit the majority of crimes. They say the three-strikes law is sparingly used by prosecutors and has been a major factor in reducing crime rates, which peaked in 1992 and have been declining since.

But critics say that crime rates began falling around the nation before the law passed, and that states without similar laws have similar or even larger declines in crime.

In general, research shows that higher incarceration rates do not necessarily lead to less crime, said Adam Gelb, director of the public safety performance project at the Pew Center on the States. Pew researchers have found that all 19 states that reduced the number of people in prison over the past decade have simultaneously seen their crime rates decline.

For example, Florida and New York had the same prison population 11 years ago, around 70,000 inmates. As Florida added 30,000 offenders to its prisons, New York decreased its incarcerated population by about 10,000 – but both states saw their crime rates fall by about the same amount, with New York experiencing a slightly larger decline.

But Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice legal Foundation in Sacramento – which advocates fewer rights for criminals – said crime is too complex to credit or blame just one law for overall trends. He said different studies on three strikes’ impact have come to different conclusions.

Critics of three strikes note that the law is also costly. A May 2010 report by the California State Auditor concluded that those now in prison under three strikes will cost the state a total of $19.2 billion. The report also found that about 53 percent of those inmates are serving a sentence for a non-serious, nonviolent crime.