Monday, May 24, 2010

Stupid is as California Does

If people are still wondering why California's prisons are busting at the seams, they need look no further than the state's three-strikes-and-you're-out law, which voters passed in 1994. The idea of keeping repeat lawbreakers off the street is not on its face objectionable, but the law does not require that the third strike be a violent or even serious felony.

That omission in the law has led to some absurd results, including the infamous case where one sorry Californian received a 25-year-to-life sentence for stealing a piece of pepperoni pizza! (I hope it was a tasty slice.)

On Sunday, the New York Times Magazine published an eye-opening story about the California three-strikes law and the efforts of one Republican District Attorney to smooth its rough edges through careful enforcement. The whole story is worth reading, but I had to share two statistics that jumped out at me.

The first shows that a huge chunk of three strikers aren't the repeat murderers and rapists the people of California hoped to snag: 
About 3,700 prisoners in the state are serving life for a third strike that was neither violent nor serious, according to the legal definition. That’s more than 40 percent of the total third-strike population of about 8,500. Technically, these offenders are eligible for parole after 20 years, but at the moment, the state parole board rarely releases any prisoner early.
In fact, California has more lifers doing time for nonviolent third strikes than the entire country has on death row for murder:

While 694 convicted murderers sit on the state’s death row, only 13 have been executed since the Supreme Court allowed for reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. The 3,700 nonviolent, nonserious three-strikers serving life in California outnumber the 3,263 death-row inmates nationwide.

There's an old saying in politics: as California goes, so goes the nation. Fortunately, even among the states that have adopted California's three-strikes approach, none has a law as aggressive  - and stupid, and expensive - as the Golden State's.