Pubdate: Thu, 23 Aug 2001
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
Author: Tamar Lewin
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


Seven years after its enactment, California's three-strikes law has 
increased the number and severity of sentences for nonviolent 
offenders - and contributed to the aging of the prison population - 
but has had no significant effect on the state's decline in crime, 
said a new study by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research 

The three-strikes law requires that those convicted of any three 
felonies be sentenced to 25 years to life. There is a two-strike 
provision, as well: those convicted of a second felony receive a 
doubled sentence. As of May, the study found, California had 6,721 
prisoners sentenced under the three-strikes law and 43,800 
second-strike convictions.

"Crime had been declining for several years prior to the enactment of 
the three-strikes law, and what's happening in California is very 
consistent with what's been happening nationally, including in states 
with no three-strikes law," said Marc Mauer, an author of the 
Sentencing Project's study, which was released today. The project has 
helped to establish alternatives to incarceration nationwide.

"The real impact of the law is a tremendous distortion of 
crime-control resources," Mr. Mauer said. "As the 25-year-to-life 
inmates stack up, California will be housing a disproportionate share 
of elderly inmates. We know that 50-year-olds commit far less crime 
than 25-year-olds, and every dollar going into housing a 50- year-old 
inmate is a dollar not going into dealing with a 16-year-old 
beginning to get into trouble."

Nationally, he said, about half the states have passed some form of 
three-strikes legislation. But in most states, only violent felonies 
are included, and fewer than 100 people have been sentenced under the 

The majority of both second- and third-strike convictions in 
California are for property, drug or other nonviolent offenses, the 
study found. By 2026, the study estimates, California will have 
30,000 inmates serving sentences of 25 years to life at a cost of at 
least $750 million - and more than 80 percent of them will be 40 or 

In many cases, the study said, the three-strike convictions amounted 
to egregiously disproportionate punishment.

For example Scott Benscoter, who had two felony convictions for 
residential burglary, was sentenced to 25 years to life under the 
three-strikes law for stealing a pair of sneakers. One homeless Los 
Angeles man's third strike was trying to jimmy the kitchen door at a 
church where the priest had previously given him food. Another man's 
third strike was the theft of $20 worth of instant coffee.

A spokesman for Bill Lockyer, the state attorney general, says that 
while California's three-strikes law is the broadest in the nation, 
that breadth helps to ensure that habitual criminals will be kept off 
the street.

"It's true that most three-strikes convictions are for nonviolent 
offenses, and there's plenty of room for legitimate debate about 
whether the net in California is too wide," said Nathan Barankin, the 
communications director for Mr. Lockyer. "But no one will argue with 
the fact that the law does incapacitate people who have serious or 
violent habitual criminal records. And when you take habitual 
criminals off the street, there's no question that it has an effect 
on crime."

Mr. Mauer, however, points out that while California crime dropped 41 
percent from 1993 to 1999, New York, with no three-strikes law, 
showed the same decline.

California's three-strikes law, passed in 1994, was the second in the 
nation, after Washington State's the prior year. The California 
measure was affirmed on a ballot initiative by a ratio of three to 

At the time, Gov. Pete Wilson called the law a strong deterrent for 
potential offenders and Attorney General Dan Lungren called it the 
crown jewel of the state's toughened crime laws.

Mr. Lungren then ran on his record in law enforcement as the 
Republican candidate for governor in 1998, but was defeated by Gray 
Davis, who promised to be tougher on crime than his opponent - and 
has blocked all efforts to soften the three-strikes law.
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