Tag Archives: three strikes law

Vote No on Proposition 36: Three Strikes Law

This is the seventh part of a series of posts analyzing California’s propositions:

A Tough Proposition

Proposition 36 is a tough proposition. There’s a strong case for voting yes on this proposition. Out of all the proposition recommendations made in this blog, this one is made with the most hesitancy.

More below.

Proposition 36 substantially weakens the Three Strikes Law. This is a famous tough-on-crime California law derived from another proposition (on a side note: there are way too many propositions out there). A serious or violent felon, if convicted of a new felony, gets twice the sentence. A two-time serious or violent felon, if convicted of a new felony, gets life. The Three Strikes Law is one of the toughest (if not the toughest) in the nation.

Under normal circumstances, this blog would unstintingly argue against voting yes on Proposition 36. Voters should never approve propositions that make big changes in subtle, complex things such as the length of prison sentences. Even if a change would be for the better, that is a job best left to the normal process. There is a reason why a legislature exists, after all: to draft laws. Legislators spend their entire lives on these issues. Voters spend a couple of hours or seconds reading a crazily complicated proposition that makes huge changes in the state. Generally, propositions on complex issues should only be approved if they fix a crisis.

Unfortunately, the normal way doesn’t work in this case. The legislature does not have the power to change the Three Strikes Law. This is because the proposition which approved the law explicitly prohibited this. So California voters are left in the unattractive position of deciding felony prison sentence lengths themselves.

There is also something quite wrong with California’s prison system, for which the description “crisis” would not be ill-fitted. They are famously overcrowded and a recent Supreme Court decision ordered California to reduce the population. The Three Strikes Law has certainly contributed to this negative situation. Finally, the proposition would save California several tens of millions of dollars per year – not something to laugh about during a budget crisis.

Nevertheless, there is also something good to say about the Three Strikes Law. California’s crime level over the past decade and a half has substantially decreased over the past two decades after the enactment of the law. Other states in the country have also followed California’s Three Strikes Law, and overall crime in the nation has been steadily declining for the past two decades. Of course, a number of other factors were behind this as well. But the Three Strikes Law’s aim was to reduce crime – and crime has indeed decreased.

More fundamentally, this proposition still would change the very complicated issue of felony prison sentences. That’s an issue that the vast majority of people are not qualified to deal with. The last clause definitely includes this blogger as well. That’s why this blog recommends a qualified “No” on Proposition 36.


It’s Time to Reform Three Strikes

California voters overwhelmingly passed the Three Strikes initiative in 1994 based on the promise that it would take repeat violent offenders off the streets.

But now, more than fifteen years after the initiative’s passage, we have the benefit of facts to help us understand the true impact of Three Strikes.

Most Californians already know that in the wake of Three Strikes the cost of corrections has soared. Our state prison budget is now so high that California spends as much on prisons as we do on higher education.

But many Californians are surprised to learn that, under Three Strikes, Curtis Wilkerson of Los Angeles was sentenced to life for petty theft of a pair of socks; that Shane Taylor of Tulare was sentenced to life for simple possession of 0.1 gram of methamphetamine; or that Greg Taylor of Los Angeles was sentenced to life for attempting to break into a soup kitchen to get something to eat.

In fact, the majority of those put away for life under Three Strikes – over 4,000 people total – committed a minor, non-violent third strike. These non-violent third strikers will, according to the California state auditor, cost the state at least $4.8 billion over the next 25 years – almost $200 million per year.

The people named above have an advantage that the vast majority of three strikers do not — they are all clients of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School’s Mills Legal Clinic. Under the direction of Project co-founder Michael Romano, Stanford law students have helped get a dozen non-violent third strikers released from prison after having their sentences reduced.

They are not being released because they are innocent. As Romano said on the Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast,

“Our clients are, in almost every circumstance, absolutely guilty. We’re not going into court and saying that they didn’t do it. What we’re saying is that the punishment that they received for this petty crime is disproportionate.”

This disproportionate punishment is unjust, and it is bankrupting our state. We are wasting precious resources to unnecessarily incarcerate minor offenders who pose little threat to society for huge periods of time – and draining resources away from the law enforcement agencies, community organizations and schools that can truly prevent crime and keep us safe.

Simply put, it is time to reform Three Strikes – so that it is focused on the serious and violent repeat offenders we all agree society must be protected from. Because Three Strikes was passed by a voter initiative, it can only be changed by initiative. In the past, Three Strikes was viewed as untouchable. But now, with the state facing fiscal catastrophe, and Romano and his students bringing attention to the unjust extremes of the law with each new client that gets released, there is momentum for change.

Romano thinks that there is another ingredient necessary for successful reform: political leadership. He says that “with a few notable exceptions, there has been very little leadership on this issue from our elected law enforcement leaders.”

Now is the time to show the leadership what it will take to return to sensible, cost-effective and fair criminal justice polices in California.


David Onek is a Senior Fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, former Commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission and candidate for San Francisco District Attorney. You can listen to Onek’s recent interview with Romano on the Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast.

Breaking Point: Ted Koppel on the CA Prison Crisis

I’ve written a lot about the California prison crisis in the past, and the last 11 posts I’ve done about it in the last four months have yielded a mere 25 comments.  It’s clear to me that there’s a lot of apathy around the issue, combined with twinges of helplessness and the paralyzing recognition that there are no easy answers.  It’s the ultimate “out of sight, out of mind” situation, and as a result, we end up warehousing prisoners, “stacking them up like cordwood” and conveniently forgetting about what goes on behind bars.

Well, you no longer have to take my word for it.  You can watch Ted Koppel’s riveting two-hour documentary for the Discovery Channel, “Breaking Point,” an exploration of life inside Solano State Prison in Vacaville, CA.  And while you’re at it, you can make 121 copies and send one to every member of the California Legislature and the Governor, so they can witness the fruits of their failed leadership. over…

Designed to accommodate no more than 100,000 inmates, California’s prisons now hold 173,000, each at an annual cost of $43,000. How did things get so out of control? Mandatory sentencing is a big part of the answer. When California voters threw their support behind a get-tough-on-crime bill that came to be known as “Three Strikes and You’re Out,” the state prison system filled up and is now overflowing.

While shooting, Koppel spent a number of days among the general population at Solano. His reporting focuses on the inhabitants of H Dorm, where inmates are stacked in triple-deck bunk beds on an old indoor basketball court. Correctional officers are so badly outnumbered that prison officials keep inmates segregated by race and gang affiliation in a desperate effort to avoid friction and maintain control. Even so, Solano still sees three to four race riots a year. Using smuggled cell phones, gang bosses continue running criminal operations on the street from behind prison walls. At the same time, they’re running drug and prostitution rings inside Solano.

By the way, that segregation is scheduled to end, by court order, come January, and you can expect the race wars to explode (there are already 3-4 large riots annually in a place like Solano as it is).  The corrections officers have, out of convenience, allowed race to govern every aspect of prison life, and shocking the system through integration, just like it did within civil society in the 1950s, is going to cause an explosion.  In the words of one inmate, “Somebody’s son’s gonna die.”  This is going to get worse, much worse.  And the root cause of all of it is the overcrowding issue, which nobody wants to fully address.

The “stack them up like cordwood” line comes from Mark Klaas, whose daughter Polly’s brutal murder ushered in the three strikes sentencing law, which is now rarely being used to capture the kind of violent offenders like the ones involved in her crime.  2/3 of all of the inmates at Solano as a result of the three strikes law struck out on a nonviolent offense.  And these are precisely the inmates who are clogging the system.  Every corrections officer interviewed agreed that tough sentencing laws like three strikes aren’t working.  And even Mark Klaas, whose “cordwood” line represented his earlier state of mind, now believes that we’re “not going to solve the crime problem by building more prisons.”  Only rehabilitation, treatment, and prevention can truly address this crisis.  And here is where the California penal system comes up woefully short.

While 85% of the population at Solano enters prison with either a prior or current substance abuse problem, only 10% will be able to enter the drug treatment and counseling program; there simply aren’t enough spaces.  Only 12% engage in some kind of vocational training, acquiring skills that can potentially be put to good use on the outside.  In fact, the best vocational training in California prisons these days is for crime itself.  “This is a school where you can learn all kinds of crime,” says one official, accounting for the nation’s highest recidivism rate.  And so once their sentences expire, we send these ex-cons off into the world with $200 and a bus ticket, with no skills, no treatment, no job, in many cases no place to live, largely worse off than they were when they entered prison, and we’re surprised when they return?

Koppel’s program does an excellent job of revealing life in the overcrowded prison complex, where even solitary confinement is double occupancy.  Building more prisons so they can simply be housed makes no sense whatsoever.  In the short term, overcrowded county jails will transfer their prisoners up to the state level.  In the long term, more will filter into the system every day without addressing the root causes.  Building costs money, too, money that won’t go to rehabilitation and vocational training and drug treatment and additional officers (who are completely outmanned).  “Nonviolent criminals should not be in this prison.”  Those words of wisdom come from a PRISONER. 

The documentary is a bit short on solutions, making no mention of the proposed independent sentencing commission that fell flat in this year’s legislative session.  But it expertly displays the crisis at hand.  I urge you to watch this important piece of work.  And at the Discovery Channel website, you can take a virtual tour of Solano, see portraits of some of the inmates, and get some more quick facts about prison life.  This is a responsibility from which citizens and our so-called leaders in Sacramento must not shrink.