UC Berkeley's Behind Bars

Debating the cost of a three-strikes sentence

Supporters and opponents bounce between salient statistics and tragic stories when debating California’s current Three Strikes and You’re Out law, which locks up criminals convicted of three felonies for 25 years to life.

Those who want to see the law amended often point to its costs: Since implementation, at least $19.2 billion has been spent on the additional nine years the average three-strike felon serves, according to the California state auditor.

Three-strike inmates make up a quarter of the state prison population, and more than half of them committed non-serious or non-violent offenses on their third strike, according to the bipartisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office. Because the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation budget has more than doubled in the last decade – from approximately $4 billion for fiscal year 1998-99 to $9.7 billion for 2007-08 – the LAO recommended early parole for older convicts whose third strike was non-violent and non-serious. Two to 4 percent of this older, three-striker population re-offend, compared to 70 percent of the general prison population.

Opponents of the three-strikes law such as Paco Torres, a law student working for the Stanford Three Strikes Project, spotlight stories like one of the project’s clients, a three-strikes prisoner serving life for stealing three disposable cameras from a store. The project helps three strikers serving life for non-violent crimes appeal for shorter sentences. Though all three strikers have committed at least one serious crime – a legal term used for 28 types of crime including home invasion – the project does not help prisoners who have committed murder or sex crimes. More than 1,000 names are on their waiting list.

“The point isn’t that our clients are completely innocent. It’s that the punishment given should be proportional to the crime committed,” Torres said. “The way the law is currently structured is far from fair.”

Three strikes supporters point to victim stories like those of 17-year-old Lily Burk. During a visit to Southwestern Law School in Westlake on July 24, 2009, she crossed paths with Charlie Samuel, a 50-year-old parolee permitted to leave a drug rehabilitation center to visit the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Burk probably would have never met Samuel if not for a clerical error in a prosecutor’s records when he was sentenced for second-degree burglary in 1997. Without the error, the San Bernardino prosecutor could have given him a third strike and locked him away for 25 years to life. Instead, years later, he was free to kidnap Burk and slash her neck.

Preventing these kinds of murders is exactly what Fresno photographer Mike Reynolds had in mind when he wrote the ballot initiative for the Three Strikes Law, Proposition 184, which passed with 72 percent approval in 1994. Two years before, Reynolds’ 18-year-old daughter Kimber Reynolds was fatally shot in the head by two robbers. Both men were repeat offenders.

A year before the law passed, the national media put a spotlight on another repeat offender for the abduction, rape and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas from Petaluma.

Reynolds has seen many attempts to alter the proposition he championed in the name of his daughter. He said he doesn’t think any are necessary, including attempts to keep people like Torres’ client from getting life sentences for stealing three disposable cameras.

“If you lower rates of burglary, guess what else goes down? Rates for rape and murder,” Reynolds said. “Frankly, when he’s stealing food or whatever else from your house, there’s always the chance he’ll also take advantage of raping you or killing you so you’re not a witness.”

Violent crimes decreased from 336,100 in 1993 – before three strikes was implemented – to 191,493 in 2007, all while the state population grew by more than 6.1 million people. Reynolds admits no one can say with certainty that one change in the system is the cause for another, but he is confident his law has saved the state money and lives.

“Right now, the chances of you getting burglarized are the same as they were in 1952,” Reynolds said. “When you stop one burglar, many times you’re really stopping a one-man crime wave.”

Politically, Democrats and Republicans can be seen on both sides of the three-strikes argument. In 2004, Proposition 66 would have amended California’s three strikes law so that a second or third strike would have to be a serious or violent felony. It was endorsed by the grandfather of Polly Klaas, Joe Klaas, in a campaign ad, and two weeks before the election, 62 percent of voters supported the measure.

But a last-minute, bipartisan media campaign against the proposition led by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former governors Jerry Brown, Pete Wilson, Gray Davis and George Deukmejian changed the public’s sentiment. After warning that 26,000 dangerous criminals and rapists would be released if passed, the proposition’s approval dropped to 47 percent and ultimately failed to pass. Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo told reporters the turnaround was unprecedented.

Today, the Democrat and Republican candidates running for California attorney general want to see life sentences for non-serious and non-violent third strikes disappear. Steve Cooley, the Republican candidate and current district attorney for Los Angeles County, has been more active on the issue than his opponent, Kamala Harris. The list of more than 60 three strikers serving life for non-serious and non-violent crimes Cooley once made was the inspiration for the Stanford Three Strikes Project.

Buzz that Cooley’s election could lead to another shot at three strikes reform has shown up in international publications as recently as May in the New York Times and July in The Economist.

But Reynolds doesn’t expect any change to the law in the near future, especially with two tough-on-crime candidates for California governor, Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown.

“If it is ever undone, the results will speak for themselves.”

Credits

Video by Jude Joffe-Block and Armand Emamdjomeh
Story by Alexa Vaughn

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