Common Sense and Crime

California's voters are known for taking the initiative in matters of criminal justice. In 1994, they passed a ballot proposition establishing the toughest "three strikes" law in the country. Last year, they voted in a law to require treatment, instead of jail, for nonviolent drug offenders.

But aren't these two measures at odds: one get-tough, the other get-soft?

If there is a common thread here, it's that Californians, like citizens anywhere, want to see common sense applied in the justice system.

Take the drug-treatment initiative. Its backers argued that it was foolish to keep filling prisons with low-level drug offenders who didn't pose a threat to others and might be weaned off their habits with treatment.

A majority of voters agreed, and California is now embarked on a significant experiment. The percentage of offenders who are turned around, instead of returned to court, will eventually emerge. But whatever that number, it represents a savings to the state.

The savings from the "three strikes" law, now seven years old, are a little less sure. Its backers touted the benefit of giving extended prison time to habitual criminals - those convicted of a second felony would have sentences doubled; those with a third felony conviction got 25 years to life. Putting crime-prone people out of commission would save the public millions of dollars in injuries and loss of property or life, said proponents. Hence the common-sense appeal.

But it hasn't turned out quite that way, according to a recent report by The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit group. The report noted that many of the "two-strike" and "three-strike" inmates - more than 50,000 of them since the law was enacted - are relatively old, with their first "strikes" sometimes occurring many years earlier. As they age, the cost of incarceration will increase - even as the likelihood of their committing more crimes decreases.

Beyond that, the law is snagging thousands of people who are not violent criminals. The third "strike," bringing extended incarceration, has been a nonviolent offense in 57.9 percent of cases.

Some Californians hope to put on the 2002 state ballot a measure to refocus the law specifically on violent offenders and perhaps specify a shorter time frame in which the two or three felonies have to occur. That reform should have a common-sense appeal to their fellow voters.

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