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Ending California's Three Strikes Law

by Wes Messamore, published

California prison and safety reform consists primarily of finding ways to reduce costs in an overburdened system without sacrificing the safety of California's residents.

As costs in both the prison budget and the rest of California's budget spiral upward, the never-ending challenge is to find less expensive ways to get the same or better quality service out of California's government. One possible solution is ending California's Three Strikes policy.

In a recent San Francisco Chronicle article, Peter Mandel, a second-year law student, relates the story of Mark, who has been serving 14 years for shoplifting. As Mandel explains, "Had this been [Mark's] first crime, his maximum penalty would have been $1,000 and six months in jail.

Instead, because Mark had committed two burglaries a dozen years earlier, when he was 19 years old, he may be in prison for life." This hardly seems fair to Mark, or like an efficient use of scarce state resources.

Because of California's Three Strikes law, the judge was able to classify Mark's petty theft as a felony instead of a misdemeanor, and sentence him to life imprisonment.

Because of California's moratorium on the death penalty, Mark's life sentence is the harshest possible criminal penalty he can face. In other words, he's serving the same sentence that a serial killer would serve in the state of California.

In 1995, just one year after Californians enacted the Three Strikes policy, a man named Curtis stole a $2.50 pair of socks. Because he had been convicted of abetting two robberies in 1981 as a 19-year-old, his most recent crime was "strike three." Curtis was given a life sentence.

While the Three Strikes law was enacted after a strong public reaction to the horrific murder of two girls, it was still not enough to prevent convicted child molester, John Gardner from murdering two girls in the last two years, before being apprehended earlier this year.

Gardner walked free after serving just five years for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl in 2000, but Curtis was given a life sentence under California's Three Strikes law just for stealing a pair of socks. Any objective assessment of these two cases will yield the conclusion that something is terribly awry in California's justice system.

Not only is it unfair to Gardner's victims for its leniency to a truly predatory monster, neither is it merely unfair to men like Curtis and Mark for its exacting harshness.  It is also running up an enormous tab for California taxpayers, draining money from things like education and health care.  The Three Strikes law is unfair to all Californians.

According to Stanford's Criminal Defense Clinic, "Over 4,000 inmates in California are serving life sentences under the Three Strikes law for committing non-violent crimes."

This simply makes no sense.  Commuting some of their sentences upon review, while repealing or at the very least, amending the Three Strikes policy, would save California money during a budget crisis, release people who have served more than their fair share of prison time for non-violent crimes, and allow California to focus more time and attention on the truly dangerous criminals like John Gardner.

If a person is entitled to no more than three failures, what should we do with a policy that has failed four thousand times?

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