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Why 'Three Strikes' May Take California for a Ride : Act of fiscal recklessness may yield to the Law of Unintended Consequences

March 13, 1994

Would that complex and seemingly intractable problems like crime, welfare fraud and deteriorating schools were amenable to quick and facile solutions. A simple idea embodied by a catchy phrase, a stroke of the governor's pen, and, presto, the problem is on the road to solution. Alas, it's not so easy. But no one seems to have told our state leaders.

"Three strikes and you're out" is now law in California. Last week Gov. Pete Wilson signed the first of several bills destined for his desk, imposing life prison terms without the possibility of parole for three-time felons. The notion of incarcerating for life incorrigible criminals has enormous appeal; indeed, we support a much more precisely targeted--and fiscally responsible--version of the idea. But the bill passed by the Legislature with blinding speed--and promptly signed by the governor amid much talk about getting "tough" on crime--is anything but a reasoned, promising new tool to stop the bloodshed in our streets, homes and schools. It is, instead, an act of fiscal recklessness on the part of this state. And from first reports, it's a law already yielding to another sadly familiar law: the Law of Unintended Consequences.

The three-strikes law casts far too wide a net. The law defines as "strikes" a number of felonies, most but not all of which involve violence or attempted violence. (One of the first felons to be charged under the law is a man who allegedly wrested 50 cents from a homeless man.) Individuals who have repeatedly committed serious, but not always violent, crimes like residential burglary or selling drugs to a minor could be imprisoned for the rest of their lives. As a result, California's prison population of 120,000 inmates, already the largest of any state, easily could swell to more than double over the next 30 years.

And while there is no clear evidence that this new law will deter crime, there is plenty of reason to believe that it will gridlock the criminal justice system through more and longer trials and fiscally contort California. Wilson's own Department of Corrections, in recent weeks, estimated that "three strikes" may cost as much as $5.7 billion annually by 2030. But reliable cost estimates were unavailable, or seemingly were considered of no consequence by lawmakers, as the bill sped to passage.

The Legislature and especially the governor, who values his reputation as a tough fiscal manager, have been inexcusably vague about exactly how this financially strapped state can afford to maintain an estimated 275,000 prison inmates to their graves. Where will the billions of dollars come from? Will some college campuses, hospitals, libraries and schools be closed so new prisons can be built? Will children be denied schoolbooks or immunizations so the necessary prison guards can be hired? Will some laid-off Californians get no unemployment relief or job training in order to create the perverse welfare system this law calls for--one that, as Wilson said, will "turn career criminals into career inmates"?

The unseemly haste of the Legislature and the governor in enacting "three strikes" may be only the first act of a long-running crime-control drama this year. Other versions of "three strikes" are now moving through the Legislature, and backers of a tough "three strikes" ballot initiative seem unsatisfied with the bill Wilson signed.

Even more troubling are Wilson's plans to move well beyond the "three strikes" concept and to seek passage of bills that would put first-time rapists and child molesters in prison for life without the possibility of parole. These crimes are indisputably detestable but, apart from the truly incalculable expense such proposals would entail, would it be just or appropriate to impose such harsh punishment for a first offense? Would it be constitutional? Would it be cost-effective? Would it deter others from committing crimes?

Crime is a problem in California, a deadly serious one. But addressing it calls for more than forceful speeches and fist-pounding. We need carefully targeted and fiscally responsible laws that are less likely to run afoul of that infamous Unintended-Consequences Law.

FO

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