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Measure Is No Guarantee of Cut in Violence

March 08, 1994|DAN MORAIN and PAUL JACOBS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — With its new law aimed at repeat felons, California is launching a dramatic new system of criminal sentencing, but no one can say with any certainty that it will significantly reduce the violent crime that people fear the most.

In the "three strikes" law, conservative law-and-order advocates have one of their fondest wishes--a statute designed to send habitual criminals to prison longer than ever before. Now, its critics say, the burden will be on its backers to prove that such a law works by documenting a reduction in violent crime.

"My neighbors are as frustrated with crime as the rest of us," said Naneen Karraker, director of the Criminal Justice Consortium, a prisoners services group in Oakland. "They are going to buy into this quick and easy fix. Five or six years down the road, when it's not working, they will feel even more cynical about our leaders' ability to deal with crime."

To be sure, proponents of the law argue that it will reduce crime. Whether or not it deters criminals, Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren and others say that at a minimum it will remove many career criminals from the streets, thus reducing crime they might have committed.

"This is impacting the repeat offender--and that is the key, the guy who won't learn to adjust his behavior," said Jeffrey D. Thompson, lobbyist for the California prison guards union, one of the strongest proponents of the new law.

But some critics of the law say it could have the opposite result. James Austin, executive vice president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, predicts that "three strikes" will almost certainly worsen the crime rate by forcing cuts to programs that help prevent crime, such as Head Start, medical care and job development.

Critics also raise the grim possibility that felons, realizing they are looking at years behind bars, may decide to leave no witnesses to their crimes.

Few academics, judges, prosecutors or defense lawyers interviewed Monday believed that the "three strikes" law will deter many of the most violent criminals--youthful offenders.

"It's not going to have the effect on the first-time violent offender," said Lungren, a proponent of "three strikes" who also says more must be done to divert young people from lives of crime. "That is a part of the puzzle we have to solve."

But if they are not deterred, Lungren added, "young offenders are going to reach the third strike pretty quick."

David Meyers, acting public defender in Los Angeles, said, "It's not going to do anything about crime. . . . Folks responsible for crime are youthful. Young people get created all the time."

As California enters the new era of criminal sentencing, perhaps what is most surprising is how little is certain about the impact of the measure.

"It's a very expensive measure for which nobody has done any serious analysis," said Peter Greenwood, acting director of RAND's criminal justice program. "It's a real big jump and it's not a well-thought-out proposition."

Here are some of the possible results, based on interviews with proponents, critics and criminal justice experts:

The courts and local law enforcement:

On any given day, more than 1,500 people are arrested for felonies in California; 564,416 felony arrests were made in 1992, the most recent year for which there are complete statistics.

The new law seeks to limit prosecutors' ability to enter into plea bargains, and restricts judges' discretion over sentences. Given that defendants will be looking at lengthy prison terms for crimes such as burglary, as well as murder, more probably will opt to go to trial.

The cost of that will be high.

There are 5,000 criminal trials annually statewide. Prosecutors and some judges say the number of felony trials could double under "three strikes," forcing judges to stop handling civil cases and devote their time to criminal cases. The Judicial Council estimated that the additional recurring cost in courts could top $250 million a year.

As it is, 96.5% of felony cases are disposed of by plea bargains. By decreasing the number of people who accept plea bargains by a mere 1%, another 1,000 trials would take place.

The new costs will come at a time when counties already are strapped.

"Although we haven't done any detailed analysis, we think there will be a broad impact on county justice agencies, such as sheriff, courts, probation and public defender," said Eric Webber, assistant administrative officer for Los Angeles County.

Legal challenges:

Superior Court Judge Richard Couzens of Placer County analyzed the new law for the California Judicial Council. The statute is short, running only five pages. His analysis is not yet done, but runs 10 pages.

"There are an awful lot of question marks," Couzens said.

The defense lawyers' organization, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, already has set up a litigation task force. The court cases could take years to decide.

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