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July 15, 2011

"California's criminal law: So bad, it could get better"

The title of this post is the headline of this new piece in The Economist.  Here are excerpts:

Three strikes has indeed, as advertised, removed some dangerous “career criminals” from the streets. But it has also condemned people to life for stealing a pair of socks.  As these lifers age in prison, they not only mock justice but cost taxpayers ever more money. As for death sentences, it turns out that they exist more in theory than in practice.  California does have the country’s largest death row, with 714 inmates.  But it has executed only 13 people since 1978, whereas 1,242 have been executed in America as a whole.  On California’s death row, 78 inmates have instead died of old age, disease or suicide.  The process of appeal typically takes decades.

It is also tough on taxpayers. California’s death row has cost more than $4 billion since 1978, according to a new study by a federal appeals judge who has also been a state prosecutor in death-penalty cases.  And it will cost more in years to come.  This makes no sense at a time when California is cutting funding for its court system to balance ever tighter budgets.

Voters still favour the death penalty in principle, polls say.  But growing numbers of credible critics are turning against it.  These include Don Heller, the man who wrote the 1978 ballot measure reintroducing capital punishment, and Jeanne Woodford, once an administrator of death row.  Both now want to repeal the penalty and convert death sentences to life terms without parole.  A law to this effect is in the legislature, and could be on the ballot next year.

A similar trend is working against three strikes.  Prosecutors, who used to be its most ardent supporters, are increasingly using their discretion not to invoke the law for minor offences. Some are openly calling for reform.  A new ballot measure to repeal or relax the law may be drafted this summer.  A previous attempt, in 2004, failed.  But a recent Field poll found that 74% of voters now agree that three strikes must be changed — not least because of the chaos it causes in the prisons.

July 15, 2011 at 08:26 AM | Permalink


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I'm an econ prof.

"But it has also condemned people to life for stealing a pair of socks. "

Does this have to be armed robbery to steal socks, or will shoplifting do?

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | Jul 15, 2011 7:20:24 PM

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