News & Politics

Arnie, Don't Strike Out on Three Strike Reform

The vast majority of Californians want to reform the three-strikes law. But Gov. Arnold just may turn his back on those people.
So far Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has batted a thousand on most big-ticket issues in California, but on three strikes he's coming perilously close to striking out. Schwarzenegger recently told a group of California prosecutors that he would oppose the November ballot initiative that limits the three strikes law to apply to violent or serious offenses. This is a sensible, logical and fair reform that should have been enacted years ago.

A June Field Poll found that more than 70 percent of Californians want three-strikes reform. One of those leading the charge for that reform is Joe Klaas, the grandfather of Polly Klaas, whose murder by a paroled felon a decade ago was the big reason why the public overwhelmingly backed the original three strikes law.

As the law is currently written and enforced, it is a blatant violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. How else explain, let alone justify, locking up a guy who tries to steal three golf clubs from a golf shop for 25 years without the possibility of parole. In most states, rapists, murderers, sexual pedophiles, bank robbers, arsonists or drug kings routinely draw that kind of heavy-duty prison time. Even in California, the odds are that most of the 50,000 or more felons that have been jailed under the law probably would have wound up behind bars anyway.

In the two-dozen other states, and the federal government, that have followed California's lead and have some version of a three strikes law on their books, none come close to slapping hundreds of petty thieves and small time drug peddlers with that type of draconian punishment. L.A. County District Attorney, Steve Cooley, wisely reversed the policy of his predecessor Gil Garcetti and applies the law only to offenders whose third offense is a violent or serious crime.

Though many DAs, politicians, and victims rights advocates claim that three strikes is a powerful weapon to fight crime and that modifying it would dump more violent criminals back on the streets, there's no hard evidence that that is true. In New York and other states that have no three strikes law the crime rate has plunged just as sharply as California's. It dropped because the population has aged, there are more jobs and economic opportunities for the urban poor, community policing programs have expanded, and there are more effective youth and adult drug counseling and treatment programs.

Despite the gaping flaw in three strikes, if California's law is not modified hundreds of offenders will continue to be herded into already bulging jail cells mostly for non-violent crimes such as drug offenses or petty theft. The majority of them are Latinos and African-Americans. Taxpayers will be forced to spend millions more to feed, house, and provide medical care for them while they while away decades in prison. Barring a legal miracle, most will limp or be wheeled out of prison when they're in their 70s and 80s.

So why then has a costly and unfair law stayed on the books so long? Two reasons. Much of the public was and still is scared stiff of crime. They are not reassured by news reports, studies, and government statistics that show that crime has dropped in California. Crime is crime to much of the public. Few are willing to make any fine distinction between someone who robs a bank or sells or possesses a small amount of cocaine. The perception is that the cocaine dealer or user today could be the bank robber or murderer tomorrow. Therefore, it's better to get them off the streets before that happens.

In a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding California's three strikes law (though by the narrow 5-4 margin), Justice Sandra Day O'Connor best reflected that view when she said that public safety must take precedence over any and all considerations. The current three strikes law has also hung in there as long as it has because there has been no detectable swing in public sentiment toward changing the law. But as the polls now show, that has thankfully changed.

At the same time, legislators in many states have been squeezed by colossal budget deficits and have reversed course on crime and are more willing than ever to close prisons, release swarms of non-violent first time offenders, and modify or eliminate tough mandatory drug sentencing laws. California and other states are putting more resources into treatment and prevention programs that are proving far more effective in helping people turn their lives around than simply warehousing them in prison cells. For a fraction of the cost of preserving the current three strikes law, drug treatment and job-training programs would keep them out of jail and from further draining the state's already miserably strained budget.

California's three strikes law is in desperate need of change and the time is now to make that change. The majority of Californians want it, fairness and common sense demand it, and Governor Schwarzenegger should support it.

Arnie, don't strike out on three strikes reform!
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of 'The Crisis in Black and Black' (Middle Passage Press).