Examining California supporters of the three strikes law

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In America today there is a lot of concern about the poor economy, the gridlock of partisan politics, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the threat of terrorism. However, most people are not aware of how unjust and unconstitutional one of California's laws is and how it threatens some of the most fundamental rights that American citizens possess; justice and liberty. There are many important problems in this country that need addressing but they pale in comparison to the immediate threat that the California three strikes law poses. It is important to understand that the erosion of justice and liberty, two of the cornerstones of our nation's fundamental ideals, threatens the very nature of a free society's foundation. Quite simply the California three strikes law sentences people to life who have committed relatively minor crimes such as shoplifting and drug possession. While these offenses shouldn't be ignored they do not deserve such severe punishment. Many of us hard working and decent human beings are guilty of such crimes; do we deserve a life sentence as well? Regardless of their prior criminal record giving someone a life sentence for committing a minor crime is a crime in itself. California's three strikes law in its current form is unconstitutional and must be reformed immediately.

This three strikes law undermines the very principles the country was founded on and is unconstitutional. It is well documented that severely disproportionate sentences amount to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment. This idea has been previously upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court (Haerens). This law is structured so that when a person receives a third strike they are subject to a mandatory 25-to life sentence. Under current California three strikes law, the first and second strikes must be either violent or serious felonies such as "murder, attempted murder, rape, child molestation and armed robbery" (Bazelon). Few would argue that these crimes shouldn't be punished with long sentences and the perpetrators be prevented from committing further crimes. The travesty occurs however, when the crime that earned the third strike isn't a violent or serious felony; any felony such as simple drug possession or shoplifting will trigger the third strike. Commonly the first two strikes earned by a defendant are serious but non violent crimes like burglary. This means that a person would receive a life sentence for two burglaries and a receiving of stolen property. The problem with this is the person has already served the time for the burglaries, so the life sentence is essentially only for the receiving of stolen property. This is cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of the 8th amendment. Any liberty loving American cannot help but see the error in this.

The California three strikes law absolutely must be reformed. This law is unjust because it punishes people who commit victimless crimes, crimes which ordinarily would be considered minor felonies or even misdemeanors. It also unfairly punishes young offenders because the first two strikes can occur as early as sixteen years old, so even after twenty-five years of abiding by the law, possession of five dollars worth of cocaine would result in a life sentence essentially, giving them no chance for rehabilitation. If this law simply targeted the violent repeat offenders it would be justified, but it is now clear that its reach is far too broad. As of 2005 almost 7,500 prisoners are serving life sentences and 60 percent of them are for nonviolent crimes whereas only 102 are for second-degree murder or manslaughter (Freedberg). If the intention is to punish violent criminals this law has missed its mark. Of the 7,500 third strikers, 678 are serving life for drug possession, 357 for petty theft, and 235 for vehicle theft, and seventy for forgery and fraud (Freedberg). While these are crimes that should be punished, the punishment should fit the crime. These unfortunate individuals have all been given life sentences by receiving a third strike just because they committed one of 500 odd felonies regardless of its severity. "…whether the third strike is stealing a $199 VCR or a brutal rape; offenders receive a mandatory 25-year-to-life sentence" (Freedberg). It is imperative that such outright over sentencing of petty crimes be stopped.

As the California budget deficit grows out of control it is vitally important to cut costs by ending expensive and unneeded programs. The three strikes law fits both these criteria. It is too costly in a tough economic time and most of the third strikes are unwarranted. According to research by the California Legislative Analyst's Office, it cost approximately $47,102 to incarcerate an inmate in California during 2009. The length of prison sentences has increased dramatically because of three strikes; this has resulted in a growing prison population that is aging. This is a concern because the cost of housing and providing medical care is significantly higher for elderly prisoners. With the cost of administering three strikes estimated at one half billion dollars annually, the costs to the state will increase considerably over the next twenty years as the prison population continues to age ("A Primer"). The financial drain on the state isn't limited to the incarceration of inmates; the courts costs associated with three strikes are a significant percentage of the financial burden because the law forces many more cases to go to trial that normally would be plea bargained. In a personal interview, a local defense attorney described the inflexibility of the law; "The law requires a mandatory 25 to life sentence with a third strike conviction. In some circumstances the plea bargain is rendered impossible because the D.A. has no other choice but to follow the three strike protocol, which doubles sentences; even if a defendant agrees to a plea, they will still be subject to an extended sentence" (Jacobsen). It is clear that the three strikes law in its current form is a financial burden on the state, one it cannot afford.

There is great urgency in reforming this law as the half a billion dollar annual drain on the budget continues to grow; its financial liability has never been more glaring in this era of fiscal uncertainty. While there is support for maintaining the status quo by concerned citizens who are fearful of crime, I question the ethics of some supporters, such as the correctional officers union, who undoubtedly enjoy the monetary benefits of an ever expanding prison population that the three strikes law guarantees. Many people may think that the fate of a few criminals is not as important as solving illegal immigration or unemployment, but when thousands of petty criminals are wasting away their lives and their chances at rehabilitation, other pressing political issues must take a back seat until the violation of the most fundamental of civil rights is ended.

In order to solve the problem that the three strikes law has created, the actual provisions within the law must be changed. I don't propose that it be completely repealed because in its essence it is a necessary and appropriate law; however, the scope of the law needs to be narrowed. The law must be reformed so that a third strike would have to be an actual violent or major felony. Any nonviolent strike-able offence committed as a juvenile should not count against ones adult record; furthermore, the judge should be given more leeway in sentencing to account for crimes committed as a young person and credit given for years of good behavior prior to committing the current crime.

It must be understood that I do not wish to abolish the three strikes law. The aim of this proposal is to adjust the law so that it is fair and constitutional while still punishing those who commit violent or serious felonies. Other alternatives have been proposed are harsher like requiring only two strikes for a life sentence, and some more lenient such as punishing only violent offenders, while others do away with three strikes altogether, but require that the full sentences be served with no time off for good behavior. I feel the solution I propose is the best because it leaves the law essentially intact and only addresses the flaws within it.

This proposal will solve the problem of unfair sentencing by punishing people for the crimes they actually commit. It reforms the law by ending the practice of putting people in prison for life because of crimes they have already paid for perhaps scores of years earlier. Amazingly some have suggested that the law be made harsher by requiring only two strikes to trigger a life sentence, this solution would only make the law more unjust. The goal should be to narrow the focus of the law but retain its essence and making it more constitutional not less.

This solution is by far the simplest and it succeeds in preserving the protections instituted in the original law. The California three strikes law is very polarizing and the fears of the general public about the release of violent offenders should be respected and the threat to the peace and well being of the public, that serious crime presents, must be not be taken lightly. An alternative proposal suggesting that only violent offenders be punished under the three strikes law ignores this fact and would undo the protections that three strikes has given. My proposal continues to punish serious as well as violent felonies, and only maintains that minor felonies be punished by sentences that are equivalent to the crime. Twenty-five years to life is too harsh a sentence for shoplifting.

This is a practical solution to solving this problem and could have a good chance of be enacted if only the politicians weren't so afraid of losing votes. It is evident that some change in the three strikes law is necessary but it has become a political hot potato so convincing the government and the public of this is difficult. The attempt to do away with three strikes altogether is naive and politicians have been reluctant to address any change in the law, so the idea of abolishing it altogether is not even in the realm of possibilities. Leaving three strikes in its current form is also naïve. Reform is the only realistic solution.

One consequence that must be addressed is the chance that if a violent offender is released, who otherwise would have been incarcerated because of a third strike, the criminal may commit another violent crime. While this is unfortunate it doesn't justify condemning thousands of shoplifters and drug addicts to life in prison in order to prevent a few violent offenders from committing crimes they may or may never actually carry out. Someone who has been sentenced to life for a nonviolent minor felony, if given the chance for rehabilitation, could become a productive member of society. I think they deserve that chance.

The most important thing to consider is the negative consequences that have already occurred because of three strikes. In 1996 a man named Leandro Andrade, an army veteran and father of three was sentenced to an indeterminate life sentence with no possibility of parole for 50 years; Andrade had never committed a violent offense. His crime was stealing $153 worth of children's videotapes from Kmart. He will not be eligible for parole until 2046 (Haerens). Is this justice? The fact that on appeal his sentence was upheld by the U.S. Supreme court proves that the California three strikes law threatens the liberty of all Americans.

There was a saying that my father was taught in law school which is a code that defense attorneys live by, it is called Blackstone's formulation. It states that "It is better that ten guilty people go free than one innocent be punished". While not in the constitution of the United States, I think it represents the basic truths of freedom and justice. How else can a society protect itself against tyranny if it does not protect the innocent? As Abraham said in the bible, "Wilt thou destroy the righteous with the wicked"? When a law casts a net too wide just to catch a few criminals and demolishes the rights of the many innocent caught up in it, it cannot be representative of true justice. Justice is not just reparation for the victims of crime; it is a deeper and more subtle truth that is based on protecting the innocent from oppression. The California three strikes law in its current form is a danger to us all and must be changed soon, for lives depend on it. I urge every Californian to seek an end to this unjust law before it and laws like it devour our very freedom. Say yes to liberty and demand that this unjust law be reformed.