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September 21, 2012

Effective coverage of California's three-strikes reform initiative

The political debate over the death penalty in California has gotten a lot of coverage this election cycle because of the repeal ballot issue, but there has been very little attention given to the important reform of the state's three-strikes law also going before the voters this fall.   For this reason, I am glad to see this lengthy new Stateline piece on the topic under the headline "California Reconsiders 'Three Strikes'."  Here are excerpts:

California voters appear poised to make significant changes in the three-strikes law. The problem, critics say, is that California’s law has swept up many nonviolent offenders along with violent ones. They cite offenders who have been sentenced to 25-years-to-life for stealing videos or even, in one case, a slice of pepperoni pizza.

Proposition 36, which will appear on the California ballot this November, would require that a third-strike felony be serious or violent. The proposition also would allow the resentencing of third-strike inmates who got 25-years-to-life for minor felonies. The revision would bring California's law in line with three-strikes laws in 26 other states.

Philanthropist George Soros, Stanford University law professor David Mills and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund are the primary financial backers of Proposition 36. The district attorneys of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties also have endorsed the ballot measure.

According to the California Secretary of State, the Peace Officers Research Association of California is the only group that has spent money ($100,000) to defeat Proposition 36. However, the California District Attorneys Association and several prominent advocates for crime victims have expressed opposition.

By putting fewer people in prison for long sentences, Proposition 36 could save the state up to $70 million annually, according to estimates by the state Legislative Analyst’s office. Those savings are appealing at a time when California is staring down yet another year of budget crises. In a poll conducted earlier this month by the California Business Roundtable and Pepperdine University, 81 percent of respondents expressed support for Proposition 36....

According to the prison population report published by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation this past June, more third-strike inmates were incarcerated for property, drug and other non-violent crimes (4,702) than for violent “crimes against persons” (4,171)....

The changes in Proposition 36 correspond closely with of the views of Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, who supports three strikes in principle but has made it a policy in his office to pursue a third-strike conviction only for violent offenders. "The state should not allow the misallocation of limited penal resources by having life prison sentences for those who do not pose a serious criminal threat to society,” said Cooley in a statement. “The punishment should fit the crime."

Along with reserving the harshest sentences for the most serious and violent criminals, proponents argue that the three strikes revision could help California reduce prison overcrowding and meet the limits set by the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce the prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity. At the last count on June 27, 2012, the state’s prisons were operating at 155 percent of design capacity. The Legislative Analyst’s office has said Proposition 36 could help reduce overcrowding, but it’s not clear exactly how much.

California is not the only state considering a habitual offender law this year. In August, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed a three-strikes law under which offenders who are convicted of three violent and serious crimes must serve the maximum sentence for the third crime, with no possibility of parole. In most cases, the maximum sentence for such serious crimes is a life sentence.

Patrick was reluctant to sign the bill, given California’s experience. But the Massachusetts legislature and public clamored for it after a repeat violent offender shot and killed a police officer in 2010. Patrick signed the bill but promised to revisit mandatory sentencing policy in the coming year.

Michigan is also debating a habitual offender law, although its law would require four strikes instead of three. The Michigan House and Senate approved different versions of the measure this year, but both would impose mandatory sentences of 25-years-to-life for certain repeat violent offenders. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is pushing for the measure, but critics say it would be prohibitively expensive.

September 21, 2012 at 10:18 AM | Permalink

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