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Prison Ruling Ignores Elephant In The Room

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'Three Strikes' Dilemma Handcuffs Reform

By Chris Levister –

University of California Riverside Professor of Sociology, Robert Nash Parker, called last week’s Supreme Court order to remove thousands of inmates from California prisons, an “impetus for change”.

“This is a transformative moment, but it ignores the elephant in the room - the Three Strikes and You’re Out Dilemma”.

Parker the co-director of the Presley Center for Crime and Justice Studies at UCR, is one of the nation’s foremost leaders in documenting the connection between drugs and alcohol and the prevalence of crime, violence and anti-social behaviors.

“Until we address the wall of resistance to modifying or repealing the Three-Strikes law and reduce our appetite for incarceration, California is simply kicking the can down the road.”

The Three Strikes and You’re Out law approved by voters and the Legislature in 1994, significantly increased prison terms for repeat offenders with previous convictions for violent or serious crimes, putting some behind bars for life.

The law originally gave judges no discretion in setting prison terms for three strikes offenders.

However, the California Supreme Court ruled, in 1996, that judges, in the interest of justice, could ignore prior convictions in determining whether an offender qualified for a three strikes sentence.

Prosecutors have the greatest discretion; they may decide whether to count certain crimes as strikes when they file their criminal complaint. Critics have charged that this system introduces the worst of both worlds: mandatory sentences for those charged under the law and unequal application of the law. Parker warns that Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget crisis driven plan to move inmates convicted of lowlevel and non-violent crimes into the custody of county officials combined with the state’s tough sentencing laws particularly three strikes recidivism, is a cocktail for failure.

“On one hand you’ve got the Justices ordering inmate reductions. On the other hand you’ve got people serving life terms for minor crimes contributing to the prison overcrowding and causing even further financial strains on the state.”

The high court ordered a reduction of 33,000 inmates within two years after finding that the state’s penal system is so overcrowded that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

“California has gorged itself on the all-you-can-eat buffet of imprisonment. It’s about time we went on a diet,” Parker said.

“We are paying $40,000 to $50,000 a year on average to incarcerate people. That cost will increase dramatically as these inmates age and the costs for their healthcare soars.”

The ruling on Monday has also already inspired a fresh round of political recriminations, with some law enforcement officials and Republicans echoing the Supreme Court’s dissenters by saying the release will result in more violence as released inmates, unable to find jobs, return to their former way of life.

“We’re bracing for the worst and hoping for the best,” said Mark Pazin, the Merced County sheriff and chairman of the state’s sheriffs’ association. “This potential tsunami of inmates being released would have such an impact on local communities. It could create real havoc.”

During a scheduled lecture "Worse Policy After Bad: Why and How Three Strikes is a Complete Failure as Crime Policy" at the University of California Center Sacramento May 26, ironically a day after the Court issued its landmark rul ing, Parker, warned against fear mongering and took direct aim at claims that the state’s tough on crime polities, most notably its three strikes law, is responsible for a 100% crime drop since 1992.

“These assumptions are patently false and irresponsible,” Parker told the audience. “Research and a logical examination of data on violent crime state by state over the past 50 years conclusively show that this is not the case.”

“A multivariate Vector time series model for California over the last 5 decades shows that the imposition of Three Strikes in 1994 has had no impact on the violent crime rate in the state, but that alcohol consumption and unemployment have important impacts on the rate of violent crime,” said Parker.

Critics of the law point out that at the time California adopted its tough Three Strikes Law, New York and Canada, neither of which has a Three Strikes deterrent, enjoyed crime rate declines ballyhooed by Californians as being questionably attributed to the Three Strikes Law.

Parker said research shows counties that aggressively enforced the law had no greater declines in crime than did counties that used it far more sparingly. One study found that crime dropped by 21.3% in the six most lenient 'three strikes' counties, compared to a 12.7% drop in the toughest counties."

If these results are correct, said Parker “the budget of California has suffered from a tremendous burden caused by the excess imprisonment of many nonviolent offenders under the Three Strikes policy.”

In 2004, California voters rejected an initiative that would have required an offenders’ third strike to be a violent or serious felony and eliminate second-strike sentences for most offenders. Only 47 percent of the state’s voters supported the measure.

“I like to tell my students, California didn’t used to be known for incarcerating its citizens – but then the Soviet Union fell and Apartheid ended in South Africa. We were in bad company then” – now says Parker – “we’ve gone from being a “laboratory” for Democratic policies to a poster child for incarceration.”

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