Change to The Three-Strikes Law is Long Overdue

Natalia Aldana

This November, voters will see a host of different issues on their ballots, from taxes and education, to even tougher issues like human trafficking and the death penalty.

Like every election season, California residents have the opportunity to affect the future and direction of our state, a state whose golden shine has dulled amidst an increasing billion-dollar deficit.

Proposition 36 proposes a challenging choice for California: are we willing to become more lax in our views of the “three-strikes law” in order to alleviate an overcrowded and expensive prison system?

Under current law, a person convicted of a felony who has two prior convictions for serious or violent felonies is sentenced to 25 years to life after their third crime, regardless of its nature. Prop 36 would require the third strike be a serious or violent crime in order to trigger the 25-years-to-life term.

According to Yes On Prop 36 supporters, “the measure is tailored to ensure that the worst bad guys remain behind bars for a very long time,” and not those whose third crimes would not constitute them as the “worst,” such as battery, petty theft and robbery.

Over 3,000 inmates are currently serving 25-years-to-life sentences under the three-strikes law after committing crimes that were non-violent, further limiting opportunities for rehabilitation for inmates judged to not be dangerous. Prop 36 would reserve harsh penalties only for dangerous criminals.

Change is overdue; this proposition would not only make the state’s justice system more fair, but also provide more breathing space in an extremely congested prison system and make our $16 billion deficit less dire.

According to the California Legislative Analyst’s report, if passed, the initiative could save the state $70 million to $90 million a year.

As of 2010, state prisons were operating at 175 percent of their design capacity, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. In addition, there is an enormous cost to housing in the California penal system – about $50,000 a person each year.

When you look at the numbers, it’s hard not to agree.

According to the state auditor, the cost of imprisoning nonviolent three-strikes offenders for 25 years is $4.8 billion.

California will spend roughly $10 billion on prisons this year – about two million more than it spends on higher education.

Yet, the dangers associated with this proposition are not unfounded.

More than 8,000 California inmates are currently serving life sentences under the “three-strikes law,” and if passed, some 3,000 inmates could be released pending a judge’s approval. The bill’s detractors, mainly victim’s rights groups, say this could make California more dangerous.

Alhough proponents have credited the three-strikes law for reducing crime since its onset in 1994, this claim is fairly dubious, as the link between this law and the decline in crime over the past few years does not appear to be strong.

The strongest argument from opponents has been that the measure could cost taxpayers in many other ways. “What is the cost of re-victimization,” said Karen Guidotti, San Mateo County deputy district attorney to KTVU Monday. “What is the cost of investigation, arrests for new offenses and prosecution for new offenses. That’s what’s not being calculated.”

If this measure passes, it doesn’t become a get-out-of-jail-free card for these 3,000 prisoners. Instead, they would have their cases reviewed by a judge with a prosecutor and defense attorney present where judges would have the discretion to let the original sentence stand or to modify it. A 2004 three-strikes modification measure would have automatically released nonviolent third-strike offenders and was rejected by voters.

Prop 36 is a rational way to reduce exorbitant state spending, furthers a long overdue humane approach to our prison system and will ensure that the punishment fits the crime. Change is overdue, and with Prop 36 we have the ability to make that happen.