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California Three-Strikes Law Not Cutting Crime

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Published On: August 28, 2001          Updated On: September 01, 2001
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

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California Three-Strikes Law Not Cutting Crime
August 28, 2001

A new study criticized California's three-strikes law for being ineffective and not helping nonviolent offenders with addictions, the Associated Press reported on August 22, 2001.

The study by the Sentencing Project concluded that the state's seven-year-old three-strikes law had no connection to the decline in crime over the same period. On the other hand, the study showed that the state is spending more to house an aging prison population as a result of the law.

The research compared the crime rate in California to that of New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. The four other states also saw a decline in crime rates, but do not have three-strikes laws in place.  

Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, said the study showed that a drop in crime is related to a variety of factors, including a good economy, a decline in gang activity, and use of community policing.

Under the three-strikes law, prison sentences for a second felony conviction are doubled, while a third conviction calls for a 25-years-to-life sentence. Because prosecutors have discretion in using the California three-strikes law, however, the study found vastly different sentences being given for the same crimes.

Citng the July 1 implementation of Proposition 36, which mandates probation and treatment rather than jail for first- and second-time nonviolent drug offenders, Mauer added, "It's almost like there are countervailing trends in California. There is public support for non-prison alternatives to deal with substance abuse. And at the same time, there is a growing population of three-strikes offenders, many of whom committed nonviolent offenses."

But California Secretary of State Bill Jones, who sponsored the bill while a member of the state Assembly, challenged the study, stating that California's 41 percent decline in crime is twice the national average.  

"Three strikes has proven without a doubt that we have delivered what we promised back in 1994," said Jones, a Republican candidate for governor.

New Report from The Sentencing Project looks at California's "three-strikes" law seven years and 50,000 prisoners after its enactment

The report Aging Behind Bars: "Three Strikes" Seven Years Later, examines a wide range of data and concludes that the law has not contributed to the reduction of crime in California to any significant extent - contrary to the claims of the law's supporters.

The study also shows that "three-strikes" has increased the number and severity of sentences for nonviolent offenders, who now make up two-thirds of the state’s second and third "strike" sentences. California includes any of 500 felonies as a "third strike," carrying 25-years-to-life. Public support for the law, the study shows, falls off dramatically regarding the practice of severe sentencing for nonviolent offenders.

The "three-strikes" law, the report shows, is rapidly expanding an aging and costly prison population—without the benefit of cutting violent crime, funnelling a growing share of resources to offenders who are moving beyond crime production age. Only 22% of arrests in the state are of offenders above age 39 and only 5% of arrests are above age 50. The study projects that by 2026, 30,000 offenders will be imprisoned for a third strike with 25-years-to-life sentences, costing $750 million per year. Fully 83% of them will be at least 40 years old.

California's considerable drop in crime between 1993 and 1999 (-41%) was, much like national crime reductions the study cites, based on a number of factors—an improved economy, declines in gang and drug activity, community policing, the aging of prime crime populations. No relationship, however, has been shown between crime rate drops and the use of "three-strikes" laws, the report states, citing numerous additional studies with the same conclusion. In fact, other jurisdictions have had similar crime rate declines without instituting "three-strikes": New York (-40.9%); Massachusetts (-33.3%); and Washington, D.C. (-31.4%).

Examples of extreme sentencing disparities are not hard to find:

Scott Benscoter, now a three-striker, had two prior felony convictions for residential burglary when he was sentenced to 25 years to life for the theft of a pair of sneakers.

Gregory Taylor, homeless, was sentenced to 25 years to life for trying to jimmy a church kitchen door for food.

Arthur Gibson sentenced to 25 years to life for crack possession, had last been convicted of a violent offense in the 1960s.

The report is available on line or via regular mail from The Sentencing Project -- call (202) 628-0871 to order.

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