Californians Wonder Whether A `Three Strikes' Anticrime Law Is Worth Price

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AMERICA'S anticrime wave continues to surge with cries of ``three strikes, you're out.'' Twenty-three states are moving to incarcerate three-time felons for life. But more eyes are beginning to focus on the shoals that could send that wave crashing: costs.

Today, the spotlight turns to California, which has the nation's longest list of mosts: population, criminals, prisons, penal costs, and a string of high-profile, repeat-offender cases. Since the state is still lagging in recession and facing a $5 billion budget deficit, four different ``three strikes'' bills that will be debated today in the state capitol are expected to bring more than the usual fist-pounding.

``The state is bankrupt and politicians here are proposing a great baseball slogan but a lousy public policy,'' says John Vasconcellos, chairman of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee. A public-backed, ``three strikes'' initiative is also being readied for the November ballot.

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Studies released by the state Department of Corrections this week say the state would have to build 20 additional prisons by the turn of the century and spend at least $2 billion per year to operate them. Estimates in one bill put the building cost at $21 billion, with $5.7 billion in operational costs.

Extrapolating from court and prison statistics, the department study said the number of inmates would soar by 109,000 by the year 2001. The state already has 28 prisons with 120,000 inmates and plans to build 12 more prisons by 2000 to house an additional 170,000 prisoners. On top of that would be the additional 20 prisons estimated for a ``three strikes'' law.

``We can't even balance this year's budget and they want to build 20 more prisons.... I find that lack of integrity distressing,'' says Mr. Vasconcellos. On the heels of the three largest state budget deficits in American history ($14.5 billion, $11.5 billion, and $8 billion over the past three years) Vasconcellos says, ``there is nothing left to tax or cut.'' Health, welfare, education, and transportation have already been through the most draconian cuts in the state's history.

Firmly behind some version of the ``three strikes'' legislation is Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, whose approval ratings have begun to inch upward after tough crime talk in this year's state-of-the-state address. Residential fires, thought to be the work of arsonists, several recent killings of police officers, and child abductions feed public calls for tougher tactics on criminals.

For California politicians in an election year, such intense public interest is hard to resist.

``My difficulty is that this is very important to my constituency, but I don't know where the money is going to come from,'' says state Sen. Leroy Greene (D), a member of the appropriations committee, which voted the four bills to be heard on the floor today. ``People want me to vote for it but don't want to cut programs or raise taxes .. that's a Catch-22 ... 3, ... 4, and ... 5.''

Without explaining exactly the money will come from, the state Department of Finance says that Governor Wilson and lawmakers will find ways of cutting other parts of the budget. Bond measures are one solution. Many critics see no other way. The state legislative analyst, Elizabeth Hill, this week told the governor he has overestimated revenues this year by close to $5 billion.

``This is clearly going to be a case where public and politicians alike weigh their feelings on public safety against other priorities,'' says H.D. Palmer, assistant director of the state Department of Finance.

The Department of Corrections already consumes 7 percent of the state's $40 billion general fund budget. According to Craig Brown, undersecretary for Youth and Adult Corrections, there are 277,000 Californians in and out of prison with one or more felony ``strikes.'' Of those, as many as 40,000 have two prior serious or violent felonies.

Senator Greene says one or all of the four bills will be on the governor's desk within two weeks. But he takes issue with bonds as a means of funding.

``You know we have a growing need in universities for 130,000 more openings, but no one is trying to float bonds to pay for that,'' Greene says. ``What's going to happen when these bond houses back East look at this. What's our rating going to be, Triple Z?''

State Sen. Diane Watson has been leading the charge to question whether such additional funds should be spent on prisons. ``Until you address the causes of violent crime, you can only expect to be putting more and more people away without reducing the number of people inclined to crime,'' Senator Watson says. The corrections study said the state might have to build as many as 70 prisons by the time the bills or public initiative have full impact three decades from now.

Watson and other opponents advocate using the same money for drug rehabilitation, crime prevention, and job training.

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