With so much focus on the presidential election coverage of many other major votes were obscured last week. One significant vote that has flown under the radar was the vote on Proposition 36: the proposal to amend California's Three Strikes law. For those who are not familiar, Three Strikes states that any person convicted of a third felony receives an automatic 25 to life sentence. Many people have expressed outrage related to this law as the law has resulted in the lifelong incarceration of thousands for minor offenses to include forging a drivers license or stealing baby formula to feed a child.
The Proposition 36 vote last week does not immediately fix the imbalance in sentencing but it goes a long way in changing the dialog about over incarceration of prisoners (especially minorities) for minor crimes, non-violent infractions and victimless drug offenses.
The Three Strikes law was passed in California in 1994 as a response to public outrage over repreat offenders committing multiple crimes and constantly getting released to continue to commit offenses. Simply put, any person convicted of 3 felonies would, upon the commission of the third, automatically receive a 25 to life sentence. In practice it sounded good and was supposed to be a strong deterrent for criminals. In practice however the Three Strikes law has been disproportionately applied and n many cases has resulted in the lifetime incarceration of thousands who are guilty of relatively minor crimes.
As you can see from the chart on the right over 40% of the second and third strike felonies are for non-violent crimes. In addition, the application of the three strikes law is arbitrary, with judges applying the law based on local crime rates, personal preference and facts of the case. The result has been the disproportionate application of the law to African Americans and Latinos at substantial rates.
More than 70 percent of Three Strike victims are African American or Latino - SF BayView 10/4/12
The last and most unfortunate result of Three Strikes is that it has not shown itself to be a substantial deterrent of crime as there is little evidence that the threat of a third strike has caused people to forego crime. On the flip side of that coin, many desperate people have committed non-violent third strikes and are serving lifetime sentences that hardly seem justified.
The Sacramento Bee reports that, among those serving three-strikes sentences, there are 327 whose third strike was petty theft, 2,515 with a final strike for property crimes, and 1,345 locked-up for drug crimes. - Sacramento Bee 10/7/12
Three Strikes Applied - Is it Fair?
Kenneth Keel In October 1997, Kenneth Keel was arrested for an alleged petty theft at a K-Mart department store. Soon thereafter, he fired the Public Defender’s Office and represented himself at trial. After a jury found him guilty of one count of petty theft, Kenneth received a 25-years-to-life sentence under the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law.
Shane Taylor committed 2 nonviolent burglaries of empty homes. After a clean record of several years Taylor was arrested for having less than $20 of amphetamine and given a life sentence.
Gregory Taylor, a 35year-old homeless man received 25 years to life under California's three-strikes law, after breaking into a church kitchen to get something to eat. His two prior felony convictions — snatching a purse containing $10 and a bus pass, and an unarmed, unsuccessful attempt to rob a man on the street.
Kelly Turner, who was sentenced to 25 to life for forgery in 1997
Modification of Three Strikes and What it Means
On election day, Californians voted to amend Proposition 36, which may provide relief for some of the 8,800 prisoners currently sentenced under the Three Strikes law. The modification to the Law includes:
A revision to impose life sentence only when the new felony conviction is "serious or violent". and
Authorizes re-sentencing for offenders currently serving life sentences if their third strike conviction was not serious or violent and if the judge determines that the re-sentence does not pose unreasonable risk to public safety.
These two modifications mean that over 3,000 current prisoners can petition the courts for reduced sentences, which may result in the release of some prisoners who have "time served" from 1 to 10 years. The teeth of the law (life sentences) still remain however for criminals who commit rape, molestation or violent felonies.
Let us hope that this positive step in addressing unfair sentencing laws can carry over to other areas of our judicial system. Most people want America to be tough on crime, but we also want the time to fit the crime.
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