Court Ruling Puts Three-Strikes Reform Back on Radar

Court Ruling Puts Three-Strikes Reform Back on Radar

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On the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling ordering California to cut its prison population Monday, some organizations called for a focus on releasing low-level inmates, spending reductions, independent non-correctional controlled community-based treatment, reentry and mental health programs.

April 2011, a cross section of Californians converged on the Hollywood Police station to mark the 17th anniversary of the Three Strikes Law and continue their demands that what they call an unjust law be amended.

“This landmark decision opens an important new chapter in California’s long struggle over whether to expand or contract our bloated prison system,” says Emily Harris, statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget or CURB, a broad statewide coalition working to reduce the number of people in California’s prison system.

“This is an important moment for California to push forward much needed parole and sentencing reforms to reduce California’s prison population, including for example amending or repealing Three Strikes, releasing terminally ill and permanently medically incapacitated prisoners, eliminating return to custody as a sanction for administrative and technical parole violations, reforming drug sentencing laws, and many other reforms that have been proven to reduce incarceration rates and corrections costs while improving public safety,” continued Harris.

The “Three Strikes and You're Out” law was created by Mark Klaas in the aftermath of the 1993 kidnapping and murder of his 12-year-old daughter Polly Klaas.

The measure was advertised as a way to keep violent predators in prison. But the initiative passed by California voters was laden with unintended consequences - and cannot be changed in any significant way without another statewide vote. Klaas believes the nation's toughest threestrikes law works well.

“Three Strikes' is where it should be,” he said. “Crime has gone down and none of the dire predictions about it have come true.” Klaas argues the mandated 25 years-to-life sentences for third time offenders keep repeat criminals off the street, and the threat of such a long sentence may stop a two-time offenders from committing a third felony.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision is a long-awaited cue for California’s elected officials to restore Three Strikes to what voters intended, says Barbara Ellis, whose brother Reginald is serving 25 to life, under three strikes.

Following the 2004 defeat of Proposition 66, a ballot measure to amend the law the former California chair of Families to Amend California Three Strikes “FACTS” formed “FILO” Families of Incarcerated Loved One’s. “As it stands, Three Strikes is a human and economic disaster,” said Ellis. “This law carves the heart and soul out of too many families. It discourages prison reform and blocks rehabilitation, re-entry and education opportunities for too many individuals over often petty offenses.”

She said more than half of the third “strikes” that have triggered a 25-to-life sentence involve neither serious nor violent felonies. Even shoplifting can be escalated to a third-strike felony - bringing life imprisonment - for those with prior convictions of petty theft.

U.S. Justice Department statistics show:

• California has convicted 4,468 offenders on third strikes since 1994.

• Approximately 2,700 "third strikers" received at least a 25 years-to-life sentence for nonviolent and non-serious offenses.

• In California, nearly 75 percent of 2nd strikes and 50 percent of 3rd strikes are for nonviolent and non-serious offenses.

• The most common charges leveled against third-strike criminals are drugs, theft and burglary.

• About 8,700 California inmates are now serving life sentences under the "three strikes" law.

Bipartisan support for prison reform

April 2011, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous joined anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, California correctional officers union chief Mike Jiminez, Silicon Valley venture capitalists and others to argue that prison spending costs taxpayers a fortune, damages the state's economic future and does little to improve public safety.

The U.S. prison population stands at 2.3 million, with African Americans making up about a quarter of that. America's incarceration rates are higher than South Africa's were at the peak of apartheid, according to an NAACP study.

As part of the campaign, the NAACP is putting up billboards in Los Angeles and Houston, which say: “Welcome to America, home to 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prisoners.”

California's prison population, now at 145,000, grew 500 percent from 1982 to 2000. State prison spending grew 25 times faster than state spending on higher education over that period, according to the NAACP study.

Annually California spends about $50,000 to house one inmate. The state has the nation's highest recidivism rate, with about 70 percent of those released committing another crime.

“Thirty years ago, 10 percent of the state's general fund was devoted to higher education and 3 percent went to prisons,” said Mitch Kapor, a San Francisco venture capitalist working with the Level Playing Field Institute, a program that provides educational help to minority students in poor schools who show promise in science and math.

The state this year spent $9.2 billion on prisons and $11.6 billion on universities and community colleges. Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed cutting higher education to $9.8 billion while holding prison spending steady.

Soaring prison costs and growing calls for reform have piqued interest among conservatives, particularly initiatives such as state Attorney General Kamala Harris “smart on crime” program, which reserves prison for violent offenders while steering lesser offenders to vocational education and drug counseling.

Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project for the Pew Center on the States, said research shows that new ways of treating substance abuse and other underlying causes of criminal behavior can help reduce the chance that offenders will commit more crimes when released. That's helping lawmakers in other states ask the right questions when it comes to alternatives to prison, Gelb said.

Levin, with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said that this is a message conservatives can respond well to.

“They realize that the growth in government has been unsustainable, and the growth in the number of criminal laws -- the number of people in prison -- has just been one aspect of the enormous growth in government that we have to rein in,” he said.