California’s conservative stance on crime and punishment could become a bit more liberal — if only a bit — as Proposition 36 aims to change the long-standing three-strikes law this November.
The three-strikes law, originally adopted in 1994, increases prison sentences of those convicted of a felony and have previously been convicted of more than two violent crimes or serious felonies, limiting the ability of offenders to receive any less than a life sentence.
“Under the current law, thousands of prisoners are serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes such as shoplifting and marijuana possession,” Dan Newman, spokesman for Prop. 36, said. “It’s time to stop clogging overcrowded prisons with nonviolent offenders, so that we focus our critical resources on keeping violent felons off the streets.”
Prop. 36 would give those serving 25 years to life for nonviolent or nonserious offenses — such as drug possession and trafficking, grand theft, burglary, fraud and forgery — opportunities for retrials and to apply for shortened sentences. The proposal also includes a safety clause that would make it impossible for those who have committed violent crimes to have a retrial. An offender who has been convicted of a serious and violent crime such as murder, rape or molestation and is on trial for a nonviolent crime such as drugs or property damage will still receive a life sentence due to previous crime records.
Many law enforcement agencies, including the California Peace Officers Association, do not support Prop. 36 due to high rates of repeat offenders.
“The current recidivism rate in California is roughly 68 percent. With around 1,700 inmates allowed to be resentenced under Prop. 36, it is safe to say that a majority of them will end up back in jail,” said Jason Burruel, legislative director of CPOA.
He said that those serving life sentences are there because they have been found to be dangers to society.
“In order to be convicted of a third strike, the district attorney had to seek a third strike and a judge had to agree with the sentence. A judge can appeal a strike on behalf of an offender. For a judge not to do so proves that those who are in prison on a third strike are serious criminals,” Burruel said.
It is estimated that it will cost $5 billion over the next 25 years to house the current population of three-strikes inmates in prison for property and drug charges, according to the California State Auditor.
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, as of June 30 there were 41,458 inmates who have been convicted of felonies either for the second or third time in California. Slightly less than half of those inmates are in prison for property and drug crimes.
Prop. 36 aims to focus life sentencing back on those who have committed crimes that threaten society and the life of others.
“Basically, this prop is trying to keep behind bars the real criminals instead of ones that are nonviolent,” Jacky Chow, 21-year-old criminal justice major said. “If (it is) enacted it will require the real criminals such as murderers, rapists, child molesters and other dangerous criminals to serve their full sentences. This is amazing because the criminals that are truly hurting others will remain in prison.”
Some, however, believe that changing the three-strikes law won’t keep people out of prison.
“I think this is just wasting more money and not focusing on the real problem. More should be spent toward education — I want to see real service, not just lip service,” said Joseph Miles, who works for SF State’s Project Rebound.
The program seeks to help formerly incarcerated students get on their feet and guide them through the process of achieving higher education.
“The real problem is lack of education; we need to start with the youth,” Miles said. “People living in the inner city need to be educated to keep themselves out of prison. If the opportunity was there for people to live the so-called ‘American dream,’ then less people would be locked up.”