By Michael R. Keitz
Madera County District Attorney Guest Commentary
On Nov. 6, voters will decide Proposition 36, which is touted as a "reform" of the "Three Strikes and You're Out" law. Proposition 36 would radically water down Three Strikes and negatively impact public safety. For this reason I, along with the California District Attorneys Association, oppose this measure.
Three Strikes was enacted in 1994, from a grass roots effort spearheaded by Mike Reynolds, following the murder of his 18 year-old daughter in the streets of Fresno. The murderer was a 25 year-old man who only two months previously had been released from state prison after serving time for auto theft. The Three Strikes sentencing law was intended to stop habitual felons such as him from continuing to commit new crimes.
As Three Strikes stands now, when a criminal who has previously committed two or more serious or violent felonies commits any new felony (the Third Strike), that criminal becomes eligible to be sentenced to state prison for 25 years to life. The rationale behind this, is those who have previously been convicted for two or more serious or violent felonies, yet choose to commit additional felonies of any type, are habitual offenders and thus a substantial risk to public safety.
Proposition 36 would change sentencing requirements so that only the commission of a serious or violent felony (not any felony) will be eligible as the Third Strike. You may ask, why would anyone propose to give habitual felons the opportunity to commit more crime? The answer, according to the voter ballot and initiative backers, is to reduce the costs of incarceration by sending fewer criminals to prison, which is overpopulated with those sentenced under Three Strikes, and to prevent the state from having to pay medical costs as they grow older.
Supporters of this initiative believe too many are committed to prison for life when their Third Strike was merely a petty theft. These arguments however, are flawed when the true facts become known.
A review of the statistics from California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation pertaining to the inmates sentenced under Three Strikes is helpful. Currently, the total state prison population is 134,868 inmates. Of these, the number of Third Strikers is 8,873, or just 6.6%. Clearly, the Three Strikes law is not the main source of inmates in our prisons. Neither are Third Strikers responsible for an aging population within the prison system.
Of the Third Striker population, only 10.2% are 60 years old or more. Commission of a petty theft can only be charged as a felony if the person has a history of prior petty thefts. Currently, only 327, or less than 4% of Third Strikers are committed for petty theft.
The justice system has adequate safeguards, from the discretion of the District Attorney through the court system, to ensure only the most deserving of felons are sentenced to a 25 year to life sentence in state prison.
If the proposition passes, the discretion of the District Attorney to utilize Three Strikes to remove from the streets criminals who pose significant risks to society will be lost, just because the most recent felony was not serious or violent. This would mean that the habitual offender (who has already been convicted of two serious or violent felonies) will be given yet another opportunity to rob, murder or rape more victims before being sent to prison.
Further, Proposition 36 allows those already incarcerated under Three Strikes to petition the courts for early release, if the Third Strike they were sentenced on was a non-violent, non-serious offense. Based on the prison Three Strikes population, some 4,300 inmates would stand to be released early.
While the release of more habitual criminals to the streets will indisputably result in more crime, the supporters of the proposition have failed to account for, or even acknowledge, the cost and burden of this to victims and society.
In 2010 the San Francisco based Golden Gate University published a Law Review article entitled "Career Criminals Targeted: The Verdict is in, California's Three Strikes Law Proves Effective." This independent study concluded that Three Strikes has served to deter the commission of crime and incapacitate habitual offenders. In fact, in the first 10 years following passage of Three Strikes in 1994, crime decreased approximately 45%. So successful is the track record of the Three Strikes, other states followed by enacting similar laws.
The bottom line is that the Three Strikes law is working and should remain in effect "as is" to protect the people of California. Please join me in voting "no" on Proposition 36.