A decade after it was enacted, California's three-strikes sentencing law has had little impact on violent crime while costing taxpayers $8 billion to imprison tens of thousands of felons, most of them for nonviolent offenses, according to a study released today.
The report by the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute also found that blacks have been imprisoned under the three-strikes law at 10 times the rate of whites, while the rate for Hispanics has been almost 80% greater than for whites.
Three-strikes inmates in California now number more than 42,000 -- one-fourth of the state's prison population, according to the study.
Supporters of the sentencing measure, widely viewed as the toughest of its kind in the U.S., quickly dismissed the study, saying putting repeat criminals in jail has saved $28 billion in costs associated with their crimes.
The law doubles the sentence for an ex-felon convicted of a second felony. Someone with two prior convictions for violent or serious crimes, if convicted of a third felony of any type, can be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
The three-strikes law "has been the most effective criminal justice initiative in the history of California," said former Secretary of State Bill Jones, the law's coauthor.
A frequent critic of California's three-strikes law also challenged the new report's conclusion on costs. "I don't think it has cost us $8 billion or anything close to that yet," said UC Berkeley law professor Frank Zimring.
But Zimring said backers of the law have greatly exaggerated its deterrent effect. "It has had a very small ... impact on crime," Zimring said.
And third-strike penalties, he said, "are sort of grossly disproportionate to the crime."
The new report offered a number of provocative findings that include the following:
* Nearly 65% of those convicted of second or third strikes were serving time in prison for nonviolent crimes. They included 672 third-strikers serving 25 years to life in prison for drug possession -- a number that was greater than the number of third-strikers in prison for second-degree murder, assault with a deadly weapon and rape combined.
* While only two ex-felons were serving 25 years to life for petty theft a decade ago, that number soared to 354 by last September.
* The six largest California counties using three strikes most frequently had lower decreases in crime rates than the six that used the law less often. Similarly, states that did not have three-strikes laws had lower average rates of violent crime -- and larger average drops in violent crime -- than the states with the tough sentencing law. For example, New York, which does not have a three-strikes law, had much larger drops in total crime and violent crime than California.
"What our studies show is that California's three-strikes law costs too much, does too little and targets the wrong people. And particularly in these times of fiscal crisis in the state, California cannot afford to do that," said Vincent Schiraldi, coauthor of the study and executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a left-leaning research and public policy organization.
Prosecutors in California's 58 counties have discretion in how and when to apply the three-strikes law.
In Los Angeles County, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, a Republican, has declined to prosecute most nonviolent offenses and lesser drug charges as third strikes.
That policy is in sharp contrast to that of Cooley's predecessor, who sought a life sentence in 1995 for an ex-convict accused of stealing a slice of pizza.
Los Angeles County generates about 40% of all three-strikes cases in the state, and Cooley's policies are similar to those followed in San Francisco and Alameda counties.
Statewide, since a peak in 1996, the number of life sentences for third strikes has dropped significantly.
Authorities attribute that decline to greater selectivity by prosecutors and a general drop in crime and to many repeat offenders' being already behind bars on third-strike convictions.
The Justice Policy Institute report acknowledged that the cost of three strikes had been nowhere near as high as some originally predicted. And that point was underscored by former Secretary of State Jones.
"Ten years ago, there were predictions that the prison population would double because of three strikes and that we would need to build 20 new prisons," Jones said. "Well, that didn't happen with the population.... We haven't had to build one new prison since three strikes became law."
Most significant, Jones said, the decline in crime over the past decade has saved taxpayers billions of dollars in arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning criminals.
"They say three strikes has cost money," Jones said. "But we have calculated that it saved the state more than $28 billion through savings in insurance and the costs of catching and re-catching the same people."