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September 10, 2013

Reformers claim California three-strikes reform is reducing excessive imprisonment without endangering public

Progress-report-1000-prisoners-releasedI am very pleased to see this new story out of California following up on an important example of voters directly embracing "smart" versus "tough" sentencing reform. The piece is headlined "Prop. 36's '3 strikes' change working, lawyers say," and here are excerpts:

Ten months after Californians voted to ease the state's "three strikes" law by exempting lesser offenders from life sentences, drafters of the ballot measure said Monday it's working just as they predicted -- reducing unnecessary imprisonment without endangering the public.

In fact, the 1,000 inmates released so far under Proposition 36 are committing new crimes at a far lower rate than other newly freed inmates in California, lawyers at Stanford's Three Strikes Center and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said at a media briefing.

Those three strikes prisoners have been free for an average of four months, and fewer than 2 percent have been charged with new crimes, mostly misdemeanors and all relatively minor offenses, the report said.  By contrast, it said, 16 percent of newly freed inmates in California are charged with new crimes in the first 90 days.

Opponents' prediction of "blood in the streets was hyperbole," said David Mills, a Stanford law professor who founded the Three Strikes Center.  "Millions of dollars have been saved and many lives changed, hopefully for the better."   He said the state provides some support for rehabilitation and training of other released prisoners, but offers no such assistance to those released under Prop. 36.

More than 2,000 additional people with third strikes have asked a judge for release under Prop. 36, including more than 850 in Los Angeles County, which is processing the cases slower than other counties, said Mike Romano of the Three Strikes Center.

The report was released on the same day that Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders announced agreement on a proposal to reduce California's prison population by nearly 10,000 inmates over three years, rather than the Dec. 31 deadline set by a federal court.  The plan would cost $200 million a year for local drug treatment and other rehabilitation programs, which are designed to lower the prison population over time, if the court agreed to extend the deadline.  If not, Brown plans to spend $315 million a year to lease cells in jails and private prisons where current prison inmates would be transferred....

Prop. 36, passed with a 69 percent majority in November, abolished life terms for criminals whose third strikes were neither serious nor violent and instead sentenced them to twice the normal term. Those reductions did not apply, however, to defendants who had previous convictions for sexual assaults and some other crimes or violence or drug trafficking.

Inmates serving 25 years-to-life terms for third strikes that were neither violent nor serious can seek to have their sentences reduced.  Before release, a judge must decide, based on the prisoner's record and prison conduct, that he or she does not pose an unreasonable risk to the public.  Prosecutors can object to release but cannot veto it.

Though not made so clear in this article, the Stanford Law School Three Stikes Project has released this effective (and short) Progress Report (which was co-published by the NAACP Legal Defense and Eduction Fund) to mark the 1,000th inmate released under the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012 ("Proposition 36").   Here is part of the report's abstract:

Fewer than ten months after the California electorate voted overwhelmingly in favor of Proposition 36 in November 2012, over 1,000 inmates have been resentenced and released pursuant to its provisions. Although many prisoners have been resentenced, there are still more than 2,000 eligible cases outstanding, including over 800 unresolved eligible claims in Los Angeles County alone.

This Report shows that the recidivism rate of prisoners released under the Proposition 36 (2 percent) is well below California's statewide average (16 percent). The Report also presents individual success stories of some of those resentenced and released.

Finally, this report proposes recommendations to address outstanding issues regarding the proposition’s implementation, including expediting the review of over 2,000 prisoners still waiting for their cases to be resolved under Proposition 36; ensuring that prosecutors and public defenders have adequate resources to litigate those cases; and providing better housing, drug treatment, and job training opportunities for prisoners reentering the community.

September 10, 2013 at 02:23 PM | Permalink


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The idea that one can assess the long-term impact of this change in law 10 months after it was adopted, and after the release of 1000 inmates, is preposterous on its face.

If crime went down 10 months after a new mandatory minimum were adopted, and I claimed that the drop after such a piddling amount of time proved the "success" of the MM, I'd be laughed off the board, and rightly so.

Maybe someone (and an unbiased someone would help) could check back after three or four years.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 10, 2013 3:12:10 PM

What a sour puss...

Posted by: Prop 36 supporter | Sep 10, 2013 7:44:42 PM

I agree with Bill. The window for assessing recidivism is usually 3 years (at least). We all should hope for good numbers but no reason to jump the gun.

Posted by: Thinkaboutit | Sep 11, 2013 12:43:56 AM

Re-arrests are not a valid measure of crime frequency. Researchers need to get a waiver from the DOJ, promising total, absolute immunity for any crime reported. Then interview a sample of the released about criminal activity of the prior week. They will find, busy, busy.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 11, 2013 1:51:09 AM

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