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Impact of 3-Strikes Law Still Unclear

More than 10 years after the law was enacted, the latest study finds no direct link between the harsher sentencing and crime reduction.

October 19, 2005|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The landmark "three-strikes" sentencing law passed by California voters in 1994 costs the state $500 million annually in prison expenses -- far less than originally predicted -- but there remains no consensus on whether it has made the streets safer, according to a study to be released Thursday.

Prepared by the nonpartisan legislative analyst's office, the study found that one-quarter of the state's prisoners -- or about 40,000 men and women -- are serving time for a second or third strike. Most are in prison for nonserious or nonviolent crimes, the report's author, Brian Brown, said Tuesday.

Brown also confirmed earlier studies showing significant differences in how often California's 58 counties apply the law to criminal defendants. That reflects the discretion criminal justice officials are allowed under the law, he said, and "differences in prosecutorial practices."

The study is the latest attempt to assess the impact of the three-strikes measure, by far the toughest among the 25 such laws in effect around the country.

Passed first by the Legislature and then as a ballot initiative, the law was an effort to target repeat offenders and came after the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas of Petaluma, who was snatched from her home during a slumber party.

Under the law, a defendant convicted of a third felony can be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. The measure also raised the punishment for "second-strikers," requiring that the usual sentence be doubled and that at least 80% of the time be served before parole may be considered.

Critics have made numerous attempts to modify the law since its passage, but it remains popular with politicians and the public. During the last five years, legislators -- most notably, Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) -- have pushed four bills seeking to amend the law but found little support among colleagues.

Critics are most unhappy about a provision that permits any felony -- not just a serious or violent crime -- to be charged as a third strike. As a result, a shoplifter can be sentenced to 25 years to life if the thief has prior convictions.

Last year, an effort was made to amend three strikes at the ballot box, with Proposition 66. Among other things, it would have allowed a life sentence only if a person was convicted of a third felony that is violent or serious. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigned heavily against it.

Though more than a decade has passed since its passage, three strikes continues to spark spirited disagreements among backers, who insist it is a significant deterrent for would-be criminals, and others, including many criminologists, who say the effect is negligible.

The legislative analyst's study does not resolve that debate, reflecting instead the difficulty of isolating a cause-and-effect relationship between punishment and crime prevention.

Brown, a policy analyst, said that although crime rates have fallen in California since passage of the three-strikes law, crime also has declined in states without such laws.

"It's also true that the crime rate was falling prior to the implementation of three strikes," Brown said. "So the question is, how do you isolate the effect of three strikes? Did it make that drop steeper or longer? We don't know yet."

One result that can be documented is the cost associated with incarcerating inmates convicted of a second or third strike. The study found that the longer sentences are adding about $500 million to the annual corrections budget, which is $7.1 billion this year.

In 1994, the legislative analyst's office predicted that those additional costs would reach $3 billion by 2003.

Still, one scholar who has studied three strikes said the heaviest costs of the measure remain to be seen. Franklin Zimring, a law professor at UC Berkeley, said that rising prison health costs will only be exacerbated as the cohort of third-strike inmates -- who now number about 7,700 -- age.

"The first parole hearing for any of these guys is not until 2019," Zimring said, "so we're going to see big-time geriatric expenses."

At the same time, he added, "the benefits of crime prevention through incapacitation get very low," because criminal tendencies decline sharply with age.

The legislative analyst's office report will be available Thursday online at www.lao.ca.gov.

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Times staff writer Nancy Vogel contributed to this report.

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