Law-and-order Republican Gov. Pete Wilson signed California's "Three-Strikes and You're Out" law ten years ago this week, and in the years since, this groundbreaking act of draconian sentencing has spread like a malignant virus to 25 states and the federal system. Under California's three-strikes law, anyone with a serious or violent felony must serve double the sentence for any second felony. Anyone with two prior serious or violent felonies must serve 25 years to life in prison for any new felony.
According to a new study released to mark the anniversary, Californians aren't getting their money's worth. The study, released by the Justice Police Institute (JPI) on March 5, found that while taxpayers spent or will spend more than $8 billion to pay for extra prison time for the more than 42,000 second- or third-strikers now sitting in the state's gulag, the harsh sentencing measure has had little impact on reducing crime. The study compared crime rates in the state's 12 largest counties and found that counties that used three-strikes laws less frequently actually had a 22% greater decrease in violent crime than those that used three-strikes law often. The study also compared California to states without three-strikes laws, and found that the non-three-strikes states had a violent crime rate 29% lower than California's, despite eight years of harsh sentencing there.
"Whether you compare California counties, or California to other states, the crime data tells us that you do not need a Three Strikes law to make communities safer," said report coauthor Scott Ehlers. "If Californians are not getting the crime declines they should expect, should they be paying the price tag that comes with three-strikes?"
Where three-strikes has had an impact, the study found, is growth of the prison population, the increased imprisonment of nonviolent offenders, and the increased imprisonment of minority offenders. In ten years, the number of people doing enhanced sentences under the law increased nearly ten-fold, from 4,408 in 1994 to 42,445 last September, increasing from 3.5% to 27.2% of the state's prison population. Some 7,234 people are serving third-strike 25-to-life sentences compared to 254 ten years ago.
Of those doing enhanced sentences, nearly two-thirds were serving the time for nonviolent offenses, the study found. Among them were 672 people doing 25-to-life for drug possession and another 354 staring at decades behind bars for petty theft. In fact, there were more people doing three-strike time for drug possession for second-degree murder (62), assault with a deadly weapon (379), and rape (119) combined.
Enhanced three-strikes sentences have a disproportionate impact on blacks and latinos, the study found. Blacks were imprisoned for third-strikes at a rate 12 times higher than whites, while Latinos were imprisoned at a rate 45% higher than whites for theft under the Three-Strikes law.
Visit http://www.justicepolicy.org/article.php?list=type&type=76 to read "Still Striking Out: 10 Years of California's Three Strikes" and related documents.