The issue: Should California eliminate the "Three Strikes and You’re Out" law?
A conservative's perspective:
After 12-year-old Polly Klaas was kidnapped from her home during a slumber party and murdered by a lifetime criminal in 1993, the California Legislature moved quickly to pass a law intended to prevent such criminals from being released after incarceration.
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“Three Strikes and You’re Out” was approved by the Legislature in March of 1994, and in November of that year, voters overwhelming passed a nearly identical law, Proposition 184.
Since that time, Three Strikes legislation has consistently faced criticism and attempts to weaken it despite its immensely positive results.
In the years since passage, crime has drastically declined in California. Critics point to a national trend and note that crime has also declined in states without Three Strikes legislation.
However, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, violent crime in California decreased by 51 percent from 1991 to 2003, compared with the national decline of 37 percent. In California, there were actually fewer felony criminal trials in 2002 than in 1993 despite population growth in the millions.
Three Strikes keeps recidivist criminals off the streets for longer periods, preventing them from committing additional crimes and harming society.
Studies estimate that in the first decade of its enforcement, more than 2 million would-be crime victims in California were spared.
Three Strikes accomplishes this through a system of “enhanced sentencing.” If a person has one previous serious or violent felony conviction, the sentence for any new felony conviction is doubled, making him a “second striker.”
If a person has two or more previous serious or violent felony convictions, the sentence for any new felony conviction is life imprisonment, with the minimum term being 25 years. He would be a “third striker.”
This system is much stricter than prior law. Previously, a person convicted of two serious felonies, such as burglary of a residence and robbery, who then committed a third serious felony, such as another robbery, would only have been sentenced to seven years.
Furthermore, such a person could be released and back onto the streets after only 31⁄2 years for “good behavior.”
Three Strikes prevents this situation by taking the focus off the crime and putting it on the criminal. It forces the justice system to consider a person’s criminal history when sentencing that individual. This is a positive thing for California.
After upholding a Three Strikes conviction in Ewing v. California, the United States Supreme Court noted another positive consequence of the law in California: More parolees have been leaving the state than entering it. This is likely due to their fear of being prosecuted further under the law.
Critics blame Three Strikes for prison overcrowding and the rising cost of corrections in California. However, there are fewer than 9,000 third strikers in California prisons, fewer than 6 percent of the total prison population.
Three Strikes is estimated to cost less than a quarter of the original projection.
It should be reiterated that second- and third-strikers have been convicted of multiple serious and/or violent felonies. Because of the high rate of recidivism, strikers would likely be in prison regardless of whether Three Strikes was on the books.
Three Strikes prevents career criminals from costing society in the form of human suffering, crime scene investigation, apprehension and prosecution.
Movements to repeal or weaken the law claim it’s too harsh and is locking up nonviolent and/or non-serious offenders. Proponents of these movements simply don’t understand the law.
Aside from the fact that all strikers have been convicted of serious and/or violent felonies, the law has safeguards that give prosecutors and trial judges discretion in choosing when to consider a felony a strike.
For instance, they can choose to disregard previous felonies when issuing a strike if they determine them to be nonserious, or for a variety of other reasons in the “furtherance of justice.”
Strikers with nonviolent drug convictions may also be eligible to go through treatment instead of serving prison time.
Often, the media has played into the hype and propagated stories of petty criminals being locked up for life for something as small as stealing videotapes. The truth of that case, however, is quite different.
In Lockyer v. Andrade the defendant had nine previous convictions, including three felony residential burglaries, several drug-trafficking offenses and an attempted escape from prison. His final strike was for felony theft of videotapes that were small in value, but his pattern of committing serious crimes and recidivism justified his life sentence.
Critics bemoan the fact that this person’s third strike was not for a serious or violent offense. However, why should we wait for this habitual criminal to commit another serious or violent crime before locking him up for good? Three Strikes is intended to prevent another tragic situation like Polly Klaas’, not enable it.
John Allan Peschong served in President Reagan’s administration and later as a senior strategist for the campaigns of President George W. Bush. He is a founding partner of Meridian Pacific Inc., a public relations and public affairs company, and serves as chairman of the San Luis Obispo County Republican Party.