Proposition 36 Promises an End to California's Punitive 3 Strikes Law
Life-sentencing young offenders for petty crimes costs California taxpayers about $3m a time. Is that rational, let alone just?
On 6 November, Californians will get a chance to vote on Proposition 36, which would reform some elements of its highly controversial "three strikes" law and bring it in line with other states by closing a loophole that has allowed thousands of low level offenders to be locked up for life. As the law currently stands, anyone convicted of a third strike offense – something as minor as stealing a slice of pizza or possessing a joint of marijuana – will be sentenced to life in prison. Prop 36 would change that to ensure that only people convicted of a serious, or violent, third strike will feel the full force of the law.
The measure enjoys the support of a broad coalition of conservatives and liberals, from Grover Norquist to Cory Booker, and from prosecutors to police chiefs. If the measure passes, as is expected, it will go some distance to undo some of the worst excesses of the three strikes law. Unfortunately, it doesn't go nearly far enough.
When the three strikes law went before voters in 1994 – then as Proposition 184 (pdf) – the measure was sold as a means of achieving the desirable goal of keeping repeat violent and dangerous felons behind bars for life. It was also meant to save the taxpayer "$23bn over five years". The law came about in response to the public outcry over the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a repeat felon. But even at the time, the law was met with strong opposition, including by the Klaas family itself, because of fears that the majority of people who would be convicted under the proposition would be non-violent offenders and because, as written, the law "treats non-violent crimes the same as murder, rape and armed robbery". Actually, it treats them worse.
The maximum sentence for rape (that does not include kidnapping) in California is eight years; the average sentence is five. The sentence for second-degree murder is 15 to life. But a man or woman convicted three times of snatching a purse, or three times of stealing a shovel from a garden shed, will be sentenced to life in prison. I wish I could say I was exaggerating here for the sake of emphasis, but when it comes to California's three strikes law, there are so many low level offenders – well over 3,000 – mostly struggling with drug addiction or mental illness, who have had their lives obliterated by this misguided piece of legislation, no such exaggeration is required. Burglary of a residence, even when it's unoccupied and when there is no weapon involved, counts as a serious felony. All robberies, including snatching a purse or taking anything by force, even when nobody is hurt, count as violent felonies, in the same category as murder, sodomy and rape.
In January of this year, I wrote about Jeremy Stewart, a 25-year-old father of two small children who was sentenced to 70 years under the three strikes law for breaking into two unoccupied homes and stealing jewellery. These two break-ins counted as his third and fourth strike (his priors were also burglary and coming into possession of stolen goods). So, in his case, the normal 25-to-life sentence was doubled to 50-to-life, and the judge threw in an extra 20 years for no reason anyone can explain to me – apparently, just to make absolutely sure this young man (who was struggling with drug addiction) never gets to see his children outside a prison visiting room again. Jeremy's mother tells me that his 70-year sentence was upheld recently in an appeals hearing, and Jeremy will not be eligible for any reduction of his sentence under Prop 36 because burglary counts as a serious felony.
At least, if Proposition 36 passes, there will be hope of sentence reductions for approximately 3,000 people who were awarded life sentences for non-serious crimes like possessing less than a tenth of a gram of a narcotic or for stealing a loaf of bread. This week, the California parole board will be considering the compassionate release of a 59-year-old grandmother named Bernice Cubie, who has an advanced form of terminal cancer. Bernice has already served 14 years of her three strikes life sentence. Her third strike was for possession of less than $10-worth of drugs; her two priors were nonviolent burglaries (stealing to feed an addiction).
Earlier this year, the parole board denied her release on the grounds that she may still be a danger to society – this despite the fact that she was never violent and she is dying. At the time of writing, the parole board has yet to reach its decision on the second request for compassionate release, so I cannot tell you how it's panned out for her. But at least if Prop 36 passes, men and women like Bernice who commit non-serious offenses, like drug possession or forging a check, will not be awarded a life sentence.
That alone makes the measure well worth passing. Beyond the obvious injustice of locking people up for life for petty crimes, there is an economic argument to be made. California is spending approximately $9bn a year on its prisons, and its penitentiary system has a healthcare budget of $2bn, 90% of which is devoted to inmates over 55. Sentencing just one young person to a lifetime in prison will cost taxpayers well in excess of $3m, depending on his or her healthcare needs.
When imposing life sentences on petty offenders, then, the question should be asked whether the threat they pose to society is really worth that kind of investment. Proposition 36 is an important step in curbing some of the worst excesses of the three strikes law, but there is still a long way to go to restore justice and a sense of proportion to California's penal system.
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