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Everyone interested in crime and punishment should read the latest report on California's Three Strikes Law, entitled A Primer: Three Strikes: The Impact After More Than a Decade, authored by Brian Brown and Greg Jolivette of the Legislative Analyst's Office of the State of California.* This study is elegant in its simplicity and its quantity and quality of information. There are important findings.
First, the three strikes law has had a major impact on California prisons: individuals sentenced under the law now comprise 26 percent of the state's prison population. Since the law was passed about 87,500 people have been sentenced to prison under its provisions. Unlike some other states, who use tough-sounding habitual offender laws more as symbolic legislation, California has made big-time use of this law. At $35,000 per inmate per year this means Californians are paying big money for this.
Second, fully 56% of "strikers" (inmates sentenced under the law) are in prison for nonserious or nonviolent offenses: this includes 59% of second strikers and 46 percent of third strikers. Sentence lengths of all inmates increased by 19 percent since the law was passed; "Second strikers released to parole in 2004 served 43 months on average. The additional time in prison for second strikers costs the state approximately $60,000 per striker" (p. 20). None of the 7,575 third strikers have yet been released and none will be until 2019.
Third, the fiscal impact is unclear, but the report estimates that the law costs about a half a billion dollars a year and that this cost will increase significantly. There will be long term costs as aging prisoners' health care costs are added to the base cost of incarcerating inmates. There will be additional parole and parole decision-making costs, and there has been a 10% increase in trials that can probably be attributed to the law; calculation of these and other costs are not included in the half billion figure. Parole officials are beefing up supervision of striker releasees, thereby increasing the cost of supervision.
The very big promise of this law is that it will reduce crime. Has it? First, it is important to recognize that the law was passed when crime was declining to begin with, both in California and the U.S. as a whole. Second, there is wide variation in use of the law by the counties, e.g., "Kern County with 1,518 strikers per 100,000 adult felony arrests is over 13 times more likely to send an arrestee to state prison with a strike enhancement than San Francisco County (113 strikers per 100,000 adult felony arrests)" (p. 25). Third, there is no correspondance between county usage of the law and subsequent changes in county crime rates. Citing a report by Jim Austin, they note: " If Three Strikes works as intended, one would expect that those counties that used the law more often would experience significantly greater reductions in crime than those that did not use it as often. However, the county comparison study did not find significantly different outcomes across different counties, suggesting that the Three Strikes law was not the primary cause of the significant drop in crime after 1994" (p. 31).
As it concerns violent crime rates in particular, the report goes on to compare the declines in violent crime across counties that used the striker enhancements a great deal compared to those that did not use it as much. They find no differences in benefits across counties: "The violent crime rate in those counties least likely to send strikers to prison declined by an average of 45 percent, while the violent crime rate in the counties most likely to send strikers to prison declined by an average of 44 percent."
In short, the decline in crime in California (and elsewhere) can not be linked to the three strikes law.
The report does not say this but it obviously needs to be: the law has been an enormously costly and ineffectual response to crime. It is grounded in unfounded and simplistic assumptions about how to control crime. Despite the hard-line rhetoric it very likely has had no effect on public safety.
As we continue to dump massive amounts of public money to fund the incarceration of offenders convicted of nonserious strikes, we miss the opportunity to support other pressing needs--ones that might well have demonstrable positive effects in dealing with crime and its antecedents.
California's Proposition 66 of the 2004 election, which would have scaled down Three Strikes to only include offenders whose second and third strikes were violent or serious felonies, was narrowly defeated at the polls because of a last minute campaign headed by the Governor, a very wealth friend of his, and other vested interests--the most powerful lobbying group in California (the California Correctional and Peace Officer's Association), and the District Attorney's Association. The television ads against the law were filled with gross inaccuracies and distortions (see them for yourself at http://www.keep3strikes.org/video2.asp).
Prior to this extremely well-funded media blitz there was strong public support for changing the three strikes law. Pollsters were surprised by the dramatic switch in public opinion.
We, the public and taxpayers, are left with paying the enormous price tag for no crime reduction benefit and lost opportunities to spend money on alternative pressing needs.
To get the flavor of excesses in the use of three strikes to solve California's crime problem see a recent example of an inmate recently released from a 25 year sentence in this L.A. Times article.
*The Acknowledgement states:
"The Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) is a nonpartisan office which provides fiscal and policy information and advice to the California Legislature. To request publications call (916) 445-4656. This report and others, as well as an E-mail subscription service, are available on the LAO's Internet site at www.lao.ca.gov."