The impact of '3 strikes' laws a decade later

Supporters cite a drop in crime and cost savings, while critics note other expenses and the law's harsh nature.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

California's "three strikes and you're out" law - the toughest criminal-justice statute in the country - turns 10 years old this month.

The verdict on its impact remains mixed, at best. But one thing is clear: The law that initially prompted international outrage by locking up people for life for such seemingly petty crimes as stealing a spare tire, forging a check, and making off with a handful of videos is not expected to be repealed. And although there's a strong petition drive under way to get a referendum on November's ballot to amend the law to apply only to violent offenders, some doubt even that will pass.

The reason is that prosecutors, like Los Angeles's District Attorney Steve Cooley, simply aren't implementing the law as it was written, but are applying it instead as they believe it was intended. "The public was not enamored of some of these bizarre, draconian sentences," he says. "So I established a very clear policy that presumes if an offense is violent or serious, we will pursue three strikes. If the new offense is not serious or not violent, we won't."

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Since California enacted its law, almost half the states and the federal government have also passed similar legislation, but none are as harsh as California's.

Still, it's the application of prosecutorial restraint that academics credit with Californians' seeming acceptance of it after initial public outcry. "Because it's not being implemented the way it was voted in, people don't seem as upset about it. To me, that's the headline," says Jack Riley, director of public safety and justice at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif. "The system has adjusted itself so the odds are lowered that there will be the kind of extreme sentences that were initially associated with it."

Despite that, the controversy over the law and whether it's been an unequaled success or a budget-busting disaster continues to rage on the political front.

A proven deterrent?

For Bill Jones, who coauthored the bill as a state assemblyman and is now running for the US Senate, this is a time to tout the success of three strikes in locking up thousands of repeat offenders for good. A study he coauthored claims it has saved California and potential victims $28 billion by preventing 2 million would-be crimes. "There are tens of thousands of fewer crime victims and thousands of individuals alive today due to this vital law," he said in a statement marking the anniversary last weekend. "The statistics tell the story. All crime is down in California, particularly violent crime."

But critics note that crime has come down across the country over the past decade, whether or not a state has a three-strikes law. In fact, states without such laws, like New York, have had significantly greater drops in violent crime over the past decade and lower growth rates in their prison systems than California.

That pattern is consistent within California as well. A study done by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), a criminal-justice-reform think tank in Washington, found that of California's largest 12 counties, those that used three strikes the least had far greater declines in violent crime - than counties using three strikes the most.

The report also blames California's burgeoning prison population in part on the law, which also doubles sentences for second-time offenders. The study found that "by June 2003, second and third strikers made up 27.2 percent of the prison population, up from 3.5 percent in 1994." It estimated that the increase cost the state an additional $8 billion.

The study also found that almost 60 percent of the third-strikers were in for nonviolent offenses, most of them drug possession. In fact, there are 10 times as many third-strikers serving time for drug possession as for second-degree murder.

Add to that the finding that African-Americans are 12 times as likely to have three strikes applied to them as whites, and critics say the law has proved to be draconian and inhumane. "The law costs too much, does too little, and targets the wrong people," says JPI's Vincent Schiraldi, who coauthored the report. "Those are outrageous racial disparities."

Crimes that go unchecked

The law's supporters argue those statistics are misleading. They point to studies showing that for every crime someone's arrested for, many more go unrecorded. "So you can be sure those three felonies don't represent the sum total of that person's life of crime," says Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York, a conservative think tank. "[These laws] are a vital tool for prosecutors to determine if a person is incorrigible." She answers critics who call the law unfair: "If you don't want to come under the aegis of the three-strikes law, don't commit your third felony."

But to Sue Reams, who 10 years ago voted for the law but now is part of a growing grass-roots movement to amend it, such analysis is simplistic and misses the human element. She's quick to tell her son Shane's story to drive the point home.

In the late 1980s and early '90s, he was a teenager struggling with a drug addiction. To help him, she became a "tough love" parent. When she realized he'd stolen from her home and her neighbor's, she reported him to the police. As a result, he was convicted of two felonies for burglary. In 1996, two years after the law was passed, he was standing 30 feet away from a friend selling crack. He was arrested and charged with aiding and abetting a $30 sale of cocaine. He and his friend were both convicted. The friend was given a four-year sentence and served two years of it. Shane was given 25 years to life, because it was his third felony.

"I voted for the law. I helped send my son to prison when what he really needed was drug treatment," says Ms. Reams. "That's how I feel now, and I intend to get him a second chance."

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