In November, California voters will have their first chance in a decade to reform the state’s “three strikes and you’re out” law, which has imposed cruel life sentences on thousands for relatively minor crimes like drug possession, shoplifting and forgery. The law represents a human rights violation that most Californians not only live with but until now have enthusiastically embraced. At least twenty-three other states also have some kind of three-strikes law, but California’s is by far the harshest. The first two strikes have to be serious or violent felonies, but, unlike in any other state, the third strike can be any of some 500 felonies, even so-called “wobblers,” which can be prosecuted as misdemeanors. Regardless of whether the third strike is stealing a $199 VCR or a brutal rape, offenders receive a mandatory 25-year-to-life sentence.
It’s doubtful that voters would have approved the law had it not been for the passions surrounding the October 1993 kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas. It soon became clear that her killer, Richard Allen Davis, had skated lightly through the criminal justice system. The three-strikes law was approved by the Democrat-controlled state legislature the following March and soon after affirmed by voters through a ballot initiative.
It is now clear that the law has cast far too wide a net. Today, nearly 7,500 inmates are serving life sentences under the law, nearly 60 percent for nonviolent offenses. Only 102 inmates have received life sentences on second-degree murder or manslaughter charges. By contrast, 357 inmates are serving life sentences for petty theft, 235 for vehicle theft, seventy for forgery and fraud, and 678 for drug possession–hardly the “career criminals who rape women, molest children and commit murder” that voters were promised would be locked away for life if they approved the law.
But neither the Democrats in the legislature nor former Governor Gray Davis was willing to take the political risk of making even minor changes to the law. The main argument in its defense has been that it has lowered crime rates in the state, although there is no compelling evidence to back up that assertion. There are also disturbing regional and racial differences in how the law has been applied. San Francisco, for example, has handed out only thirty-two life sentences under the law, while nearby Santa Clara County has handed out 421–nearly six times the San Francisco rate. Black inmates, who make up 30 percent of California’s overall prison population (but only 7 percent of the state’s overall population), make up 45 percent of third-strikers serving life terms.
The most urgent reform is to change the law so that a life sentence is triggered only by a serious or violent felony. Proposition 66, a voter initiative on the November ballot, would do just that. Polls show that nearly 70 percent of Californians support the initiative, a remarkable shift in public opinion, driven in part by the state’s disastrous financial situation, which in turn has focused attention on its bloated correctional system and its 163,000 inmates. The average expense to house an inmate in a California prison is $31,000 a year. For a third-striker serving a life sentence, that comes to an average minimum cost of $750,000 per inmate. Those costs will rise significantly as the three-strikes population ages.