March 5, 2004


Decade-Old Three Strikes Law Still Striking Out

EDITOR’S NOTE: California’s “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law turns 10 years old on March 7. It’s time to repeal this costly, ineffective law with the catchy baseball name, write Justice Policy Institute executive director Vincent Schiraldi, co-author of a recent analysis on the impact of Three Strikes, and Geri Silva, executive director of Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes.

By Vincent Schiraldi and
Geri Silva

On November 18, 1995, Leandro Andrade shoplifted four videotapes worth $68.84 from a Kmart store in Montclair, California. Instead of the three years such petty thievery would have previously netted him, California’s newly enacted “Three Strikes” law, combined with Andrade’s prior record, sent him to prison for 25 years to life.

Three Strikes turns 10 years old on March 7. Passed in the emotional months following the tragic kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, the nation’s broadest and most punitive mandatory sentencing law has had an enormous impact on California’s prisons and its budget, while yielding a negligible impact on crime. Yet, while legislators in other states have recently abolished or amended their mandatory sentencing laws, California’s elected officials have been reluctant to tinker with the law with the catchy baseball name.

After the law’s first decade, one out of every four people in California’s $5.7-billion prison system is a three-striker. Those 42,000 prisoners are more than the entire prison populations of 42 states.

Like Andrade, 65 percent of those imprisoned under Three Strikes are nonviolent offenders. African Americans are imprisoned for life under Three Strikes at an astonishing 12 times the rate of whites. Those imprisoned under Three Strikes thus far will end up costing Californians an additional $8 billion by the time their sentences are finished. Each person sentenced to life under Three Strikes will cost the state a minimum of $600,000, if he stays healthy while in prison and is released at his absolute minimum eligibility.

Despite these enormous costs and negative consequences, there is scant evidence that Three Strikes is helping California curb crime. Of the state’s 12 largest counties, the six counties that make greater use of Three Strikes imprison defendants under the law at twice the rate of the six lower-using counties. Yet, violent crime has decreased 23 percent more in the lower-using counties than in the higher-using ones since 1993. Los Angeles County “strikes out” defendants at nine times the rate of San Francisco County, yet San Francisco has had a decline in violent crime that is 24 percent greater than Los Angeles’ since 1993.

Similarly, states that did not enact Three Strikes experienced an 11-percent greater decline in violent crime than those that did. New York, a non-Three Strikes state whose prison population only increased by 315 persons since 1994, has had a 20-percent greater drop in violent crime than California, whose prison population has grown by 34,724 persons since then.

Disappointing results like these have led to steadily diminishing support for mandatory sentences in general. Backed by 55 percent of national poll respondents in 1995, mandatory sentences have declined in popularity, supported by only 38 percent by 2001. Michigan, Indiana, Connecticut, Mississippi, Louisiana, Maine, Delaware and New Mexico have all either repealed or amended mandatory sentences over the past three years.

Even Reagan-appointed Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who voted to uphold Andrade’s sentencing and the Three Strikes law, has spoken out against mandatory sentences, noting, “Courts may conclude the legislature is permitted to choose long sentences, but that does not mean long sentences are wise or just.” Yet in 1998, when a bill passed the California legislature to merely study the impact of Three Strikes, then-Governor Pete Wilson vetoed it, stating, “There are many mysteries in life, the efficiency of ‘Three Strikes’, however, is not one of them.” No Three Strikes reforms have passed California’s legislature since then.

Three Strikes costs too much, does too little, and targets the wrong people. It should not only be repealed, it should also serve as an object lesson for other states about the dangers of thoughtlessly enacting mandatory sentencing laws during times of great emotion.

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