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'3-Strikes’ Penalties are Costly, Waste Lives

California voters have the opportunity to eliminate some of the worst elements of their state’s “three-strikes” law, which is widely held to be the harshest in the nation.

  • Thomas Giovanni
Published: March 19, 2012

Published in The Sacramento Bee.

California voters have the opportunity to eliminate some of the worst elements of their state’s “three-strikes” law, which is widely held to be the harshest in the nation. Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project has proposed legislation that aims to limit a third strike to violent or “serious” crimes. The project aims to put that question before voters in November 2012, instead of the November 2014 date set by the measure recently passed in the Assembly.

Currently, a person’s third strike can consist of nonviolent, nonserious cases. In one famous case, that third strike consisted of shoplifting golf clubs. Born as the state reeled from the high-profile murders of Kimber Reynolds and Polly Klaas – both committed by repeat offenders – California’s three-strikes law currently punishes even petty thieves and juvenile offenders with life in prison.

No good comes of a policy born of rage, pain and fear. Whether Japanese internment, waterboarding or three-strikes laws, decisions made in the heat of passion often result in shame and regret. Internment was a shame of our Greatest Generation; torture will be a shame for ours. Californians now have an opportunity to reform a justice system that is beyond broken.

The numbers are appalling: According to the Stanford Three Strikes Project, more than 4,000 inmates are serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes. That number is nearly half of the approximately 9,000 inmates incarcerated for their third strike. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates an average cost of about $47,000 a year per inmate.

To make matters worse, last year the conservative U.S. Supreme Court upheld an order for California to reduce its prison populations, and the state’s horrid prison conditions were the centerpiece of one of the largest sustained inmate protests in U.S. history.

In the past decade, California’s expenditures maintaining people in prison have risen from 1 percent of the state budget to approximately 8 percent – $7 billion. If the 4,000 nonviolent inmates live only 15 years, it will cost the state $2.8 billion.

We can do better.

Throughout the country, progressive organizations and intelligent policymakers are working to rein in costs, increase public safety and reduce recidivism, all while taking care not to sacrifice human dignity, fiscal responsibility or common sense. The Bard Prison Initiative in New York, as well as studies from Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio, prove that education can be a singularly powerful tool in reducing recidivism.

Innovations in parole practices that include families and communities – such as those from the Urban Institute and the Safer Foundation’s Safer Return Demonstration project in Illinois – have shown great promise in reducing recidivism. In New York City, the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions works with community groups to provide pre- and post-transition support and also proposes national reforms to help formerly incarcerated persons secure employment.

These reforms all cost less when they are measured in actual corrections system dollars saved and in tax and consumer revenue generated by a person’s participation in their community’s economy. And they have another added value: They create more stable families and healthier communities.

Proven successes make for better investments than proven failures. California – as well as other states engaged in the process of changing criminal justice system policies in the face of severe budget constraints – should create evidence-based reforms, rather than anger-fueled punishments. Each of the three “strikes” is a lost opportunity to rehabilitate and re-integrate.

We must advocate for comprehensive policy reform in both state and federal justice systems, and work to improve the justice system by promoting holistic indigent defense, highlighting inequalities, and fighting to eliminate criminal justice debts.

When we choose to remove people from society and place them in cages for decades, or even until death, the choice is too often born of rage, pain and fear. It is a surrender to inhumanity – not theirs, but our own.

We can do better.

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