SANTA ANA — The new "three strikes" law aimed at locking up career criminals could place a heavy toll on nearly every law enforcement and social service agency in Orange County, according to a report released Wednesday.
A worst-case scenario could bring the civil court system to a virtual standstill to make way for more criminal trials, cause more severe jail crowding, place increased demands on probation officers and trigger an expansion of the local welfare rolls, officials said.
One of the hidden consequences of the legislation is expected to be a growing dependence on social programs should criminal cases begin to overwhelm the court system, county Social Services Director Larry Leaman said.
In many cases, convictions result in families seeking welfare support or placing children in government custody, according to the report by the Orange County Administrative Office. Any noticeable increase in the conviction rate and length of time served under the new law could cause a dramatic growth in government expenses to maintain those services.
"This is not just a hysterical reaction," Leaman said. "These decisions, quite often, set off a series of domino actions that we don't expect or that are not immediately visible."
The full brunt of the law will not be felt for several months, but county officials, judges and attorneys agree that local governments should be prepared to dedicate more money to public safety with no guarantees that the investment will bring a decrease in crime.
"This thing could be damn bad," Board of Supervisors Chairman Thomas F. Riley said, describing the financial implications of the law.
One of Riley's concerns is that the new law would exacerbate crowded conditions in the county jail system and lead to more early releases of those charged with lesser offenses such as drunk driving.
The Orange County jail system population, already governed by a federal court order, is expected to rise as more career-criminal cases are filed and brought to trial, the report stated.
For the county, the potential cost increases come at a difficult time as local government revenues continue to shrink because of higher unemployment rates, increased municipal incorporations and the lagging state economy.
Signed into law last month by Gov. Pete Wilson, the "three-strikes" legislation has created a flurry of concerns, questions and criticisms.
On Wednesday, Wilson set out to defend the law, saying that it would actually save potential crime victims at least $140,000 for every inmate incarcerated each year.
"Critics point to the costs of locking up these violent thugs and argue that California cannot afford it," Wilson said in a written statement. "I say again, we can't afford not to."
Wilson said the potential savings were only conservative estimates, contending that each year that a repeat felon is taken off the streets, between 15 and 187 crimes are prevented.
Aside from the debate over costs, perhaps the only certain result of the "three-strikes" legislation will be legal challenges, authorities say.
The law mandates a minimum sentence of 25 years to life for third-time felons who have racked up two prior convictions for crimes, ranging from residential burglary to murder. The law also calls for more prison time for those with one or more "strikes"--including juvenile convictions.
The state Department of Corrections has predicted it must build 20 additional prisons under the new law--a prison costs about $500 million to build--and spend $2 billion a year to operate them.
In Orange County, authorities anticipate that adult trials will increase by 30%, and juvenile court trials may increase by as much as 50%, possibly requiring additional staff in most criminal justice agencies, the report said.
"If there's nothing to lose by going to trial, it's not really a gamble," Orange County Public Defender Ronald Y. Butler said. "If you go to trial you're giving a client the opportunity of an acquittal or a (conviction on a) lesser charge. There's just no reason not to go to trial."
So far, Orange County prosecutors have filed only two cases under the new legislation and are carefully reviewing each eligible case, said Chief Assistant Dist. Atty. Maurice Evans.
"At this point, we're taking a kind of a wait-and-see attitude," Evans said, adding that it is not yet clear how often the new law will be used. "It's just too early to tell."
In one instance, prosecutors believed the penalty did not fit the suspected crime and they moved to dismiss the "three-strikes" enhancement against a repeat felon charged with possessing a small amount of heroin, Evans said. Prosecutors may decide in rare cases to exercise discretion in declining to file charges, he said.
As it is written, however, the law does not appear to give prosecutors much room for interpretation, and Butler said disagreements about the new legislation will linger until the courts rule on expected challenges to the law.