Think the “three strikes law” has made sense in California? Think again, say researchers at University of California – Riverside, who have compiled a comprehensive analysis of the 3 strikes law and its effects on California’s criminal justice system. The study, published recently in the California Journal of Politics and Policy, shows that contrary to the law’s proponents, the three strikes law has had absolutely no effect on the crime population since it was enacted in 1994. While violent crime has decreased in California in the last 20 years, the study shows violent crime rates have decreased across the country at approximately the same rate, even in states without three strikes enacted. The study’s findings also prove the deterrent effect of the three strikes law, often touted by politicians and criminal justice advocates as the best reason for stricter punishment, is negligible or nonexistent.
California’s three strikes law is often seen as the strictest in the nation. While other states have three strikes laws in place, California’s is one of the only ones to increase punishment after the second offense – automatically doubling the punishment an individual faces if he or she has previously committed a serious or violent offense. California’s three strikes law differs from many other states in that the third strike – which earns a defendant 25 years to life – need not be serious or violent in nature. Defendants have been sentenced to life terms for crimes as minor as shoplifting videotapes from a store, or stealing a piece of pizza. To add insult to injury, California’s broken parole system means the “25 years to life” sentence really means “life without parole,” as almost no inmates qualify for release any more.
So if the three strikes law has not helped to decrease violent crime, and does not serve as a deterrent, what does it do? More than anything, the three strikes law does one thing very well: increase the costs of the criminal justice system.
According to the study, in 1985, spending on higher education in the state accounted for about 11 percent of the budget; prisons consumed 4 percent of state spending. By 1993, spending for each accounted for about 6 percent of the budget. By 2010, higher education spending accounted for less than 6 percent of the state budget while prison spending consumed nearly 10 percent. K-12 budgets and spending on health and welfare programs have eroded substantially since the implementation of three strikes as well.
The costs of the three strikes law have a direct impact on the clients of the California Innocence Project as well. Daniel Larsen was convicted in 1999 for the crime of possession of a concealed knife, his third strike under the three strikes law. He was sentenced to a term of 28 years to life for the offense. Years later, investigators for the California Innocence Project discovered a number of witnesses who were there on the night of Daniel’s arrest. The Project explained to a federal court that another individual, not Daniel, had the knife that night, and that the arresting officers had it wrong. After hearing this evidence, the federal court ordered Daniel’s conviction to be reversed, and for Daniel to be released.
That was two years ago. Despite the testimony of a number of witnesses to the incident, and despite the federal judge’s order of reversal, Daniel remains in prison. The reason? The state Attorney General, Kamala Harris, has appealed the ruling, arguing Daniel was late in filing his claim. Daniel remains in prison, found to be wrongfully convicted by a United States federal judge, because of a technicality.
You can help correct this injustice and put the politics of the three strikes law back on the table in California. Change.org has created an online petition (see below) to Kamala Harris to get her to drop her appeal of Daniel’s case. More than 120,000 concerned individuals have already signed the petition. Put your name down on the side of justice and send a message to our politicians that the three strikes law needs to be reconsidered.