SACRAMENTO — California's three-strikes law, the nation's toughest such statute, has had little deterrent effect on hardened criminals, or influence on the state's drop in crime, a study by University of California researchers released Monday shows.
The study by UC Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring comes as the legislative analyst's office issued an update showing that almost 50,000 felons have been sent to prison under the statute's terms since it took effect five years ago.
Although touted by leading state politicians as a significant crime-stopper, the three-strikes law has deterred few if any criminals, Zimring concluded. The report notes that the percentage of arrests of felons facing three-strikes sentences dropped by only 1% in the two years after the law took effect.
Approved by the Legislature in 1994, and by voters in a 1994 initiative, the law doubles prison terms for criminals who commit a felony after they have been convicted of one prior serious or violent crime, ranging from burglary to homicide.
The law imposes sentences of 25 years to life on criminals who commit a third felony--no matter the nature of the crime--after they have been convicted of two prior serious or violent crimes.
According to the Zimring report, crime began dropping in 1991, three years before the law took effect. Although it has continued to decline since, the fall leveled off in 1994, before the sharp decline resumed.
"Whatever has reduced crime in California over the mid-1990s, it does not appear that the 1994 legislation played a major role," says the report, co-written by Zimring, University of Denver law professor Sam Kamin, and Gordon Hawkins, senior fellow at the Earl Warren Legal Institute.
The study probably will not result in a change to the law, at least not any time soon. The three-strikes law remains popular among California voters, and Gov. Gray Davis repeatedly has voiced support for it.
"Three strikes has been an effective law," Davis spokesman Michael Bustamante said Monday. "It is something he continues to support."
At a news conference Monday, Zimring, who is generally viewed as a liberal scholar, described the three-strikes law as "troubling." Even if the study does not prompt changes to the law, he said it challenges contentions that it deters criminals from committing crimes.
Zimring also called for more studies, describing the California statute as "the most significant punitive penal reform in the second half of the 20th century in the United States."
Overall, the study said, only one in 10 three-time offenders are sentenced to 25 years to life. Far more two-time offenders are sentenced under the law's provisions.
Zimring said that prosecutors prefer the option of doubling sentences for two-time convicts but are often more reluctant to seek life sentences for three-time felons if their crimes are relatively minor.
The study focused on 3,500 criminal cases in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco in the first two years after the law took effect. Zimring found that there were significant differences among prosecutors' approaches to the law in the three counties.
In San Diego, prosecutors used the law more often than prosecutors in the other counties, and the length of sentences increased more dramatically. Sentences for most third-strikers in San Diego increased to at least 14.5 years after 1994, from about two years in prison before 1994.
The increase was less pronounced in Los Angeles. But in Los Angeles, the percentage of three-time felons who were incarcerated rose to 52.7% from 40% in the year before the law took effect.
In San Francisco, the percentage of prison terms after arrests of potential three-time cases actually fell to 21.7%, compared with 34.7% before the law took effect. Zimring attributed the San Francisco numbers to prosecutors' policy of sending repeat felons back to prison on parole violations for relatively short terms, rather than retrying them for their new crimes.
"San Diego was in a class by itself," Zimring said at the news conference. "If I am going to steal pizza, that's not a town I want to do in. Los Angeles appears to be much more selective. San Francisco appears . . . not to use the third strike."
Meanwhile, the legislative analyst's update predicts that by 2000, a fourth of the state's 165,000 prison inmates will be serving two- and three-strike sentences. The update says the most common offenses for two-time losers involve drugs possession, followed by petty theft. The most common offense for three-time losers is robbery, followed by burglary.
The legislative analyst notes that blacks make up 37% of the felons serving prison terms as two-time convicts, and 44% of the felons serving 25 years to life.
Zimring's study points out that although African Americans account for 36% of all felony arrests, they make up 50% of the felons eligible to be sentenced as two-time offenders, and two-thirds of the criminals who face 25-year-to-life sentences as three-time felons.
He said the disparity is because black criminals commit far more robberies than do whites, Latinos, or Asians, and that robbery is one of the crimes that counts as a "strike."
"It isn't that prosecutors are picking on that particular group," Zimring said. "It is that the statute is picking on that particular group."
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Striking Out In March 1994, the three-strikes measure was signed into law. Now, five years after its enactment, almost 50,000 inmates have been imprisoned under the law.
n Percentage of second- and third-strike inmates in California's prisons
Source: Legislative analyst's office
MATT MOODY / Los Angeles Times