Who's Out?--Let's consider whether the "three strikes" law is really worth it.
Thursday, October 15, 1998
In the governor''s race, Dan Lungren TV commercials endlessly exalt the candidate for his advocacy of the "three-strkes and you''re out" mandatory sentencing law. The commercials represent yet another wave of specious propaganda in favor of a law that is wreaking havoc on some of the most needy families in the state.
"Three strikes" specifies a 25-years-to-life sentence for three felony convictions. However, none of the three strikes needs to be for a violent offense. The strikes can apply retroactively to offenses committed in the ''60s or ''70s by defendants who were as young as 16 years of age at the time. Many voters naively assume that we would never adopt a law that hands out life sentences to petty offenders, herding them into costly new maximum security prisons. They''re wrong.
What are some of the "strikes" that prompt us to spend so lavishly for life sentences? One man''s "strike three" was for theft of a $37 calculator. Another retarded man "struck out" by committing a burglary at a friend''s house; there was no damage or injury. Or how about a man named Peter Wysong who got 25-to-life for stealing a pair of pants from a local department store? Strikes one and two were for non-violent burglary offenses committed years earlier. Sentenced to a long term, he could not under the law be sent to a low security prison. This relatively inexpensive alternative would have made sense given the prisoner''s non-violent past. Instead he was sent to the maximum security Pelican Bay prison, reportedly the most brutal facility in a state known for violent prisons. For his own protection at Pelican Bay, he was put into solitary confinement where he will probably serve out the rest of his term. These costly, cruel sentences for non-violent/serious offenses constitute the rule, not the exception, in three strikes sentencing. Seventy to eighty percent of second and third strike convictions involve non-violent or non-serious offenses.
It is widely assumed that, however arbitrary or unjust, "three strikes" represents a necessary "finger in the dike" to quell escalating violent crime rates. This inaccurate view is fueled by politicians and sensationalist media. Crime rates started to drop in 1991 and have trended downward since then. However, media hysteria about violent crime has risen sharply. In 1992 and 1993, widely publicized murders of two young California girls took place. In the wake of the publicity, the California State government, and voters through the initiative process, passed "three strikes" in 1994.
In the mid-1990s, an organization calling itself Families to Amend California''s Three Strikes (FACTS) sprung into existence, consisting mainly of family members of those incarcerated for strikes. Taxpayers may beef about shelling out three-quarters of a million to lock up each petty "lifer," but imagine the toll on families who lose a father, a mother, a wage-earner. Many of those serving for strikes are single parents. The orphans created are often shunted between foster homes and institutions at additional taxpayer expense. They are of course very likely to become offenders themselves in a few years. The purpose of FACTS is to comfort the afflicted prisoners, their families, and inform the public about this costly, dangerous law. In particular, FACTS wants to amend the three strikes law to apply only to serious or violent offenders.
This change would free up room in prisons to house the truly dangerous, while releasing those who should be working, paying their taxes, and raising their families.
Tom Lee is an outraged California taxpayer and a member of Families to Amend California''s Three Strikes.