An Argument against the California’s Three Strikes Criminal Law

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When you think of life-sentences for criminals, what type of offense comes to mind? Crimes that would do the greatest harm to society or ones that would warrant a life sentence, like murder, rape, arson, or other serious or violent offenses? This is what California legislators had in mind when they created California's Three Strikes, You're Out, Law. Instituted in 1994, the law was established to rid our streets of multiple offenders. Instead, it has led to more problems and chaos than expected. Before examining the details, one must understand the background of the law.

Public outrage over crime and the kidnapping of young Polly Klaas found political expression with the proposal of various laws mandating lengthy sentences for repeat felons. Put forward under the slogan, "Three Strikes and You're Out," the law ordains that felons found guilty of a third felony be locked up for 25 years to life (Godina). Although the first two "strikes" must be serious felonies, the crime that triggers the life sentence can be any felony. This may include attempted burglary, grand theft, and even possession of a controlled substance. Furthermore, the law doubles sentences for a second strike and requires that these extended sentences be served in prison rather than in jail or on probation. The law limits "good time" earned during prison to 20 percent of the sentence given rather than the 50 percent given under the previous law (Cordell). This means a convict would not be up for parole until at least 80 percent of his term is completed. This law should be reexamined, especially regarding non-violent criminals.

With 57 percent of third strikes being nonviolent offenses, (typically drug violations or burglary), the law hasn't targeted the most dangerous criminals (Clark). If the whole point of the law was to sweep career criminals off the street by mandating sentences of 25 years to life, why are drug abusers and petty criminals going to jail for a disproportional amount of time? The punishment should fit the crime, and this law does not take that into account. The instances of injustice are overwhelming.

Take a look at the case of Gary Albert Ewing- a small time criminal with multiple burglary and theft convictions. Ewing was on parole in 1994 when he walked into a pro-shop in Los Angeles, stuffed three golf clubs down his pants leg, and limped out of the store. An employee called police, who arrested Ewing in the parking lot. He was charged with felony grand theft of property worth more than $400; this charge has become known as a "wobbler" in California because it can be classified as either a felony or misdemeanor (EWING v. CALIFORNIA). Despite Ewing's pleas, the judge treated the charge as a felony and because of Ewing's previous convictions, (under the newly enacted Three Strikes Law) sentenced Ewing to 25 years to life. Ewing appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that the law violated the United States Constitution's Eighth Amendment's guarantees against "cruel and unusual punishment." The Supreme Court held the law was not unconstitutional by a vote of 5 4 (EWING v. CALIFORNIA).

The case of Gary Ewing speaks for itself. Mr. Ewing is now serving 25 years to life in a California prison, and is not up for parole until 2019. To know that our criminal system is placing people in jail for at least 25 years because of unarmed theft is ridiculous. This law was created to stop serious or violent offenders from committing multiple crimes, not throw the life away of a shoplifter. Neither of Ewing's priors involved weapons nor violence. Does it seem fair that the majority of this man's life will be spent in jail because of two drug possessions and one attempted theft? Many other small time criminals are in jail for life because of non-violent or non-serious crimes.

When comparing the sentence length of second and third strike offenders, the numbers speak for themselves. Due to the years added to a criminal's sentence on the third strike, the gap can be as large as 28 years. The National Institute of Justice reported in 1996 that petty theft (a non-violent crime) with a prior offense receives 3.3 years for the second strike and 28 years for the third strike. That is a 748 percent or an increase of 24.5 years. Petty theft criminals should have a longer sentence on their third strike, but not to the extent of over 700 percent. To keep 27,000 second and third strikers who have committed non-violent crimes in jail for an extended amount of time costs the state an overwhelming amount of money.

Fiscally, California's Three Strikes Law is irresponsible, and places stress on California's budget. It costs $31,000 per inmate, per year to keep criminals jailed (Ehlers). This amount is negligible when the criminals being locked up for over 25 years warrant their sentence. When the crime is simple drug possession or unarmed robbery, $31,000 a year for over 25 years is too high a price. It costs

California tax payers $775,000 to keep Gary Ewing and other small time criminals in jail for at least 25 years. More than half of the $8.1 billion dollars California spent to keep criminals incarcerated from 1994 to 2003 were non-violent cases. It is impossible to imagine how California can keep locking up petty criminals, while it faces such financial devastation. The citizens should be reexamining their three strikes law, especially when California is experiencing a high deficit crisis. It should concentrate its prison budget on keeping violent criminals incarcerated, rather than countless non-violent offenders that fill up the system.

Supporters of California Three Strikes Law claim that taxpayers will save more in the long run. They foresee resources will be saved due to less cases going to trial, less personal damages, and less criminals to occupy law enforcement's attention. This only holds true for violent offenders. In regards to non-violent offenders, $4.7 billion was dedicated to keep them locked up, not including the additional $3.5 million spent because of the 1996-1997 State Budget Act (Ehlers). The act set up a Three Strikes Relief Team that consisted of a special team of retired judges...formed to assist trial courts that are swamped with three-strike cases." (Ehlers). That totals $5 billion over the course of nine years- spent solely on non-violent offenders. With that income freed up, the state can spend it on worthwhile social programs like anti-drug programs, more police on the streets, or balance California's $22 billion deficit (Calif. Budget Summary). Democrats and Republicans agree across the board that a balanced budget is a good budget.

The law does not just have a devastating fiscal impact, but racial impact as well: the proportion of minorities convicted under the law relative to whites is explosive. Despite the fact that AfricanAmericans and Latinos are incarcerated at a higher rate than whites, the rate of criminal behavior and offenses are similar. This shows that minorities are more likely to fall victim to the Three Strikes law than Caucasians. The ratio between African-Americans to Caucasians being jailed for their third strike is a twelve to one ratio (Ehlers). You are twelve times more likely to be prosecuted under the Three Strikes Law if you are African-American than if you are Caucasian. It is also a 45 percent higher incarceration rate for Hispanics than Caucasians (Ehlers). This is unacceptable, considering that our country's judicial system should be blind to race. The number of convictions under the law should be proportional to the number of convicts in a specific race. Statistics show that prisoners are 29.2 percent Caucasian, 30.2 percent African-American; and 34.7 percent Hispanic (Ehlers). With AfricanAmericans and Caucasians within 2% of each other, there should not be a large disparity in third strike incarcerations.

Many refuse to believe California's judicial system is racially biased. When asked, proponents of the law will direct attention to numbers. These numbers show a constant decrease in crime rates since 1992 (Lockyer). They say the disproportion of African-American third strikers is justified by the decreasing crime rate throughout California, including both violent and non-violent crimes. Supporters of the law want you to believe that California's Three Strikes Law has locked up repeat offenders and deterred others from committing crimes. Once examined more closely, one will see the law doesn't have much effect on crime rate.

Judges decide if the law will be used in a court case, so the number of cases involving the Three Strikes Law differs by city. For example; San Francisco uses the law the least, at an average of 41 times per 1,000 cases, and San Diego uses the most, at 87 times per 1,000 cases (Asuncion). If the law was as effective as its supporter's claim it is, then the decrease in crime rate would be seen as twice as high in San Diego than San Francisco. Examining three counties that use the law least and three counties that use it the most, the crime rate index shows no difference. Counties that used the law the least saw a drop of nearly 50% in crime and counties that used it the most saw a drop of 41% (Asuncion). According to these percents, the effect of the law has no significance. The drop in crime rate cannot be attributed to the effects of the Three Strikes Law because crime rate dropped almost equally across the whole state. There is no evidence showing a direct correlation between the law's use and crime rate decrease. This law needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

There are two adjustments that should be made. The first one involves drug possession charges. Drug addicts are not criminals; they commit criminal acts because of drug addictions. Currently under the law they are treated the same as any other lawbreaker. Drug abuse is a medical problem not criminal one. When the law diagnoses drug abusers as criminals, they are putting the problem on hold rather then fixing it. Under the law, a third strike drug possession charge can place a convict in jail for up to 27 years (Longshore). Instead, we should send drug offenders to treatment centers;

addiction would diminish, there would be less multiple drug related crimes, and money spent keeping multiple drug offenders in jail would be freed. A study conducted by the Department of Alcohol and Drug Program in California showed a continuous decrease in multiple offenders after completing drug rehabilitation. This would relieve the California budget and help thousands of people suffering from drug addictions. It is the state's duty to help drug abusers get on their feet and become a functional part of society. In regard to other non-violent offenders, the state should design a program designed solely for non-violent criminals and their multiple offenses.

The second adjustment to the law would give non-violent criminals one more chance while punishing them appropriately. A four-strike system would be a reasonable punishment. Non-violent third striker should be given an additional 15 years instead of the usual 25. Creating a system where the jump between strikes is more gradual will be a more proportional way of sentencing crimes. After the first two strikes, the criminal is given an additional 15 year sentence, and the third strike should not exceed 25 years. The fourth and final strike should be 25 years to life. This modified version of the law would only apply to those that commit non-violent crimes. Any serious or violent criminal would still be prosecuted under current three strike law guidelines.

By adopting a new four strike system and reforming the state's approach to drug offenders, appropriate punishments would fit the crimes. As a fair and equal society we should strive to diminish the amount of injustices the current system creates.

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An Argument Against the California's Three Strikes Criminal Law. (2022, Feb 05). Retrieved November 29, 2023 , from

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