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Prop 36: Soaring prison costs drive Three Strikes reform Blacks represent 45 percent of Three Strikes inmates

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Chris Levister

Three Strikes reform will be on the November ballot. Under current law, a person convicted of a felony who has two or more prior convictions for serious or violent felonies is sentenced to 25 years to life, regardless of the nature of the latest crime. Stanford Law School professors drafted Proposition 36 the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012 to amend the law and require a third strike be a violent, serious crime in order to garner a sentence of 25 years to life.

The measure is tailored to ensure that the worst bad guys remain behind bars for a very long time. A third-striker whose prior convictions involved certain sex-, drug- or gun-related crimes would still get 25 to life even if the third offense wasn't serious or violent. And even those whose third offenses were nonviolent and didn't count as third strikes wouldn't get off easy — they would have to serve double the usual time for their latest offense. So, for example, a thief facing a third strike for a nonviolent crime that would usually merit a sentence of two to four years would instead get four to eight.

It wouldn’t mean automatic release from prison rather inmates serving life sentences for minor crimes would apply for re-sentencing under a judge’s review, explained Dan Newman of the Stanford Three Strikes Project.

Voters passed Three Strikes in 1994, aiming to imprison very violent felons like murderers, rapists and child molesters for life. Today, more than 4,000 people are incarcerated under Three Strikes, and more than half of them have committed non-violent, non-serious crimes, according to the Stanford Three Strikes Project and the California Department of Corrections. According to the Justice Policy Institute Three Strikes has had a disparate impact on Blacks. With only 7 percent of California’s population, Blacks comprise 45 percent of the Third Strikers. “People are taking a fresh look at this law. Prison costs are soaring. Health care for inmates in California prisons doubled over the past three years costing the state nearly$2 billion last year. Stricter sentencing laws are keeping people in prison longer, and they're getting old and sick,” said Geri Silva, executive director of Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes Law.

Brenda Fullam, a member of Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes Law, (FACTS) is thankful that the Stanford Three Strikes Project has taken the issue on. Her brother Kendall has been in prison since 1999, serving a life sentence for aiding and abetting shoplifting. “I don’t condone breaking the law, but I just feel like the time should fit the crime,” she said. Analysts say Prop 36 appears to be gaining momentum across the state among state lawmakers, law enforcement and in Inland and poorer areas which are disproportionately represented in the prison system.

Once a staunch supporter of Three Strikes, Darlene Buhl points to a May 2011 Supreme Court ruling in which justices called conditions in California’s overcrowded prisons so bad that they violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court ordered the state to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates. “We have to be realistic. Californians have been seduced by fear. It’s time to take off the blinders and look at the human and monetary costs. This is not the Three Strikes law we voted for.” If Prop 36 passes, California could see a reduction in the number of inmates in its prisons as well as saving the state anywhere between 70 to 90 million dollars per year. Opponents of Prop 36 say it would allow thousands of potentially dangerous felons to be released early from their sentences.

Statistics show 65 percent of prisoners released go back to correctional facilities within three years while half of that number returns to prison within six months. Those against Prop 36 also point to the concept of judicial discretion claiming judges already have some leeway in how they administer the law. The final argument against the initiative is it will not reduce taxes and that government doesn’t spend enough on crime as it is. Opponents of Three Strikes sought reform through Proposition 66 in 2004. It would have amended the law to apply only to violent felonies and permit re-sentencing. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, California’s non-partisan fiscal and policy advisor, voters overwhelmingly supported the proposition, which would have saved several hundred million dollars annually, primarily in the prison system.

A poll placed Proposition 66 ahead by 68 percent a month before November 2004 elections. In a last-ditch campaign blitz, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger invoked voters’ fears through TV ads claiming 26,000 hardened criminals, like murderers and rapists, would be freed from prison, if the referendum passed.

Proposition 66 was defeated. The Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012 is another opportunity to turn things around through the political system, said Silva. During the fight for Proposition 66, many state representatives felt the law was unjust but also felt it was political suicide to try to change it, she said.

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