Californians favor modifying Three Strikes, moving state inmates to local jails

Voters agree with Gov. Brown’s plan to transfer low-risk state inmates to local jails in order to comply with the recent Supreme Court ruling on overcrowding in state prisons. However, they don’t want to pay any extra taxes to do it.  They also overwhelmingly say that the current Three Strikes law should be amended to give judges more leeway in sentencing, as this could ease prison overcrowding. These findings come from a Field Poll released on June 16.

The US Supreme Court, after years of lawsuits and appeals, said California state prisons are so overcrowded that they are unconstitutional, provide substandard health care, and are hazardous to guards as well as inmates. They ordered that the inmate population be reduced by 30,000 within two years. However, as is often true with federal government mandates and court decisions, funding the cost was left to the state.  Gov. Brown wants to raise taxes or extend current increases to pay for this, but voters oppose both plans. Republicans, Democrats and Independents all oppose a tax hike while Republicans and Independents also oppose extending tax increases, something Democrats favor.   But taken as a whole, voters oppose extending tax increases 48-44.

The thinking here is muddled. If the state doesn’t pay for transferring the inmates, then the municipalities will. This cost will surely be passed onto taxpayers one way or another. So if taxpayers manage to avoid new state levies to pay for the transfers, they will end up paying for them on the local level anyway. You can’t relocate and then house 30,000 inmates without someone paying for it. Ultimately the cost will be paid by taxpayers.

And just to clarify, these transfers will only happen with low-risk inmates and the vast majority of them are simply being moved to a different facility rather than being paroled or released. Initial fears that thousands of dangerous inmates will be dumped on the streets and then terrorize the populace are groundless.

The most startling finding in the poll was that 74% of all voters want Three Strikes revised so it is less draconian, with more leeway in sentencing allowed, which would leave prisons less crowded. It is perhaps revealing that the question was phrased as being about prison overcrowding rather than about justice or fairness. But certainly getting 25 to life on a Third Strike for filling out a false DMV application is a perversion of justice. Of course, if Three Strikes isn’t revised, the prisons will simply start filling up and become overcrowded again. This can and probably will also happen in local jails once inmates are transferred there.  

Frustratingly, California does seem to take a remarkably short-term view of problems. Transferring inmates does little to solve the underlying problems. California has the highest percentage of people in prison of any state. It’s not that we’re more lawless but rather that sentencing is so severe, and little is done to stop recidivism. Most people in prison are there either directly or indirectly as a result of drugs and alcohol, and if it’s a Third Strike, they are often there effectively for the rest of their life.

A focus on getting inmates clean and sober for keeps would pay off handsomely as former criminals become law abiding taxpayers, and prisons start to empty out. This would benefit the entire society.