Should Voters Change ‘Three Strikes’ Law this Fall?: No

The law’s a big deterrent for repeat cases

By Sen. Chuck Poochigian — Special To The Bee – (Published July 25, 2004)

California’s crime rates are at historic lows, having improved dramatically over the last 10 years since the state’s voters overwhelmingly approved the “three strikes and you’re out” law.

This groundbreaking measure established a sensible but tough new approach to dealing with habitual lawbreakers that has locked thousands of felons behind bars for 25 years to life.

Unfortunately, it took the tragic slaying of a young girl in 1992 by a dangerous repeat offender to draw public attention to the problem and galvanize support behind a measure to keep chronic criminals off our streets and in jail. In November 1994, the initiative establishing the “three strikes” law passed by a landslide with over 76 percent of the vote.

The concept behind “three strikes” is simple: Habitual criminals should receive more severe penalties. Criminals receive a first or second strike when they commit serious or violent felonies such as murder, rape, lewd acts on a child, assault with a deadly weapon on a peace officer, sale to a minor of drugs like cocaine and PCP, and carjacking.

Conviction of a second strike offense results in a sentence enhancement, effectively doubling the penalty. A third strike is earned for any felony if the criminal has been convicted of at least two previous serious or violent felonies and can result in a sentence of 25 years to life.

Since the implementation of “three strikes,” the overall crime rate per 100,000 residents in California has been reduced to its lowest levels in 35 years. Most major crimes have decreased by 50 percent or more.

Despite the demonstrated success of this tough-on-crime measure, an effort is underway to significantly weaken California’s “three strikes” law. Proposition 66, which will appear on the November 2004 ballot, would undermine key components of the law.

The initiative’s proponents who seek to change the law have focused on the requirement that the felony for which third strike penalties are triggered must not always be serious or violent. However, judges and prosecutors already have substantial discretion to avert application of “three strikes” in the furtherance of justice if the facts surrounding a third felony conviction clearly do not warrant such a sentence.

Opponents of “three strikes” also argue that this system has led to excessive incarceration rates. This assertion is simply not supported by the facts. A March 2004 report by the Department of Corrections identifies only 7,372 inmates incarcerated in state prison for a third strike conviction, representing 4.5 percent of the total inmate prison population. At the same time, 32,158 persons convicted of second strikes were incarcerated, more than four times the number of third strikers.

Given today’s awful 70 percent-plus recidivism rate in California (the highest in the United States), the fact that less than 25 percent of second strikers return to prison with a third strike is evidence that this policy is working.

One of the most disturbing effects of the proposed weakening of California’s “three strikes” law is that it would retroactively reduce six crimes from “serious and violent” felonies to straight felonies that would not invoke application of “three strikes.”

This means that approximately 25,000 convicted second and third strike felons will be eligible for re-sentencing and potential release into our cities and streets. These criminals have been convicted of such crimes as felony arson, residential burglary, criminal threats, gang-related crimes and some felonies in which great bodily injury occurs.

California’s “three strikes” law has proven to be a strong deterrent to repeat offenders, raising intense awareness among previously convicted felons about the consequences they may suffer if convicted of a third felony.

We should continue to explore ways to improve our criminal justice system and to ensure that criminals who are going to be returning to our streets have been given the skills needed to avoid a life of crime. But there should be no mistake about the fact that repeat offenders with a history of serious and violent crime convictions represent a different story. It is likely that criminals who are lifetime offenders will continue to prey on society and wreak havoc with the lives of innocent victims and their families, unless subjected to long-term confinement.

A primary responsibility of state government is to protect the lives and safety of its citizens. Opponents of “three strikes” typically use the added cost of housing felons as a key factor in their arsenal of excuses to do away with the law. This argument is debunked by cost-of-crime figures from the U.S. Department of Justice, which suggest that three strikes has saved California taxpayers billions of dollars.

In any case, the assessment of the cost of incarceration must be weighed against the pain, anguish and expense borne by victims of the perpetrators of crime.

Any attempt to alter this life-saving, tough-on-crime measure should not be taken lightly. Tinkering with this monumental crime control measure in the way that Proposition 66 suggests would have serious, adverse consequences, and could potentially release many thousands of dangerous felons into our state.

The “three strikes and you’re out” law has successfully ended the revolving door of California’s criminal justice system and has been instrumental in keeping the most violent repeat felons off of our streets. The law works, and for the safety of our citizens it should be preserved.

Chuck Poochigian (R-Fresno) is a former CA state senator, now a Justice at the Fifth District Court of Appeal.