About one in every four California inmates is serving a sentence under the nation's most stringent repeat-offender law.
California is the only state that metes out life sentences for writing a bad check, trying to pry open the door of a church food pantry, stealing a jack from a tow truck and other nonviolent offenses that might not otherwise result in any jail time. In some three-strikes cases, inmates committed all their offenses on a single day. While these tend to be more serious crimes, that hardly fits the career-criminal profile offered as justification for the law.
It's little wonder that California is under a federal court order, affirmed by a decidedly conservative U.S. Supreme Court, to release thousands of inmates to relieve crowding in state prisons.
The first step will be moving some offenders to county jails. That will happen this fall. Another step should be revising three strikes to ensure that life sentences are meted out only for serious and violent felonies.
Lawyers at Stanford University's Three Strikes Project are drafting such an initiative, with an eye on the 2012 ballot.
And they may have allies from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the politically powerful prison guards union that fought past efforts to better target the three strikes law, including a ballot initiative in 2004. "We'd be open to reasonable modifications," Jevaughn Baker, a union spokesman, told the San Jose Mercury News. "We have to have an efficient system."
Under three strikes, the penalty doubles for a second felony conviction, and a sentence of 25-years-to-life is imposed for any subsequent felony, no matter how minor. Almost 9,000 inmates are serving life sentences on three-strikes convictions, and 32,000 others are two-strikers.
In a state that spends $50,000 per inmate annually — up from $20,000 when three strikes was adopted — the cost of enhanced sentences is huge. In 2009, state auditors estimated that taxpayers would spend an extra $19.2 billion over the duration of incarceration for the three-strikes inmates then in custody.
The law's history is closely entwined with Sonoma County. Before the 1993 kidnapping and murder of Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old Petaluma girl, by a parolee with a lengthy criminal record, three strikes legislation was bogged down in Sacramento, and an initiative campaign wasn't making much progress either. Both passed with a boost from Marc Klaas, the slain girl's father, who later became an outspoken opponent of three strikes.
Another Sonoma County case resulted in a state Supreme Court decision in 1996 that gave trial judges discretion, previously enjoyed only by prosecutors, to disregard prior convictions and reduce sentences in the interests of justice.
The exponential costs of three strikes were one reason that it was going nowhere before the Polly Klaas case. As the costs have mounted, political leaders have ducked for cover, afraid of being labeled as soft on crime.
Now, after years of state budget deficits and facing court orders to address prison crowding, voters should pass a new initiative to restrict three strikes to career criminals and the most serious crimes.