This November, California voters have an opportunity to reform California’s 18-year-old “three-strikes” law through voting in support of Proposition 36. Our three strikes law, which is the toughest in the country, allows courts to sentence individuals to 25 years to life in prison if an individual is found to have committed a third felony – no matter how minor – if they have two prior serious or violent criminal convictions.
Prop 36 would alter a heavily criticized provision in the three strikes law that has produced unreasonable outcomes, and resulted in unnecessary costs to the state. Under this initiative, individuals whose third conviction is a non-violent, non-serious offense would not qualify for a third strike, with some exceptions. The exceptions are that Prop 36 would not allow anyone with a prior conviction for rape, murder, child molestation or other egregious crimes to appeal their life terms. This measure applies retroactively, meaning that those currently serving three strikes law terms can file a motion in court to reconsider their sentences if they qualify.
Inconsistencies in Sentencing
Because the current three strikes law does not require a serious or violent conviction for the third strike, there have been widely publicized cases of individuals serving 25 years to life sentences that are disproportionate to the crime committed. For instance, Shane Taylor in Tulare County is serving 25 years to life in prison for possessing a small amount of methamphetamine, which qualified as a third strike because he had two previous burglary convictions. There is also the well known case of Jerry Dewayne Williams who was sentenced to 25 years, soon after the three strikes law was implemented, for stealing a slice of extra large pepperoni pizza from a group of children in Redondo Beach.
Public Safety Impact and Cost Savings
Individuals whose third strike was a nonviolent offense pose a very low recidivism rate. As explained by Mike Romano, a Stanford University law professor, to the San Francisco Chronicle, statistics show that only 4 percent of individuals serving life sentences for a nonviolent, third strike offense qualify as high risk for committing a violent crime, compared with 20 percent of the total prison population.
Prop 36 also will reduce our overcrowded prison population and thereby result in significant savings to the state. Under this bill, an estimated 1 in 3, or 3,000 of the 8,873 prisoners, serving 25-years-to-life terms as of June 2012, can qualify for resentencing hearings. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that Proposition 36 could result in a savings of between $70 million to $90 million a year due to the decreased prison costs.
Shift from Overreliance on Prisons
For the past three decades, if California voters are given a choice between funneling more people into our prison system versus less, the majority often check the box for more. However, what we have come to learn the hard way is that prisons do not solve our societal problems of crime, poverty, addiction, trauma, mental illness, and unequal access to education and jobs. This may explain why for the first time in decades, polls show that a growing majority of voters support Prop 36.
As prison abolitionist Angela Davis has explained, prisons do not disappear our problems. Rather, they drain our resources and energies away from education and social programs in the pursuit of a false promise of a quick fix. It’s time to take a step away from our overreliance on prisons and toward the more difficult, yet rewarding task, of addressing our societal problems head on through crafting solutions that address the root causes.
Originally published in Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area (AABA) Newsletter, Sept/Oct 2012 Edition