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California’s Proposition 184: Three Strikes and You’re Out

Last year in California voters approved a controversial ballot initiative. Proposition 184, also known as the three strikes and you’re out law, was passed on November 9, 1994. Under this new legislation repeat offenders, upon committing their third felony offense, will be sentenced to a mandatory twenty-five years to life in prison(California 667). The initiative passed by a landslide, with 76% of the voters in favor of it. The State Senate soon after voted the bill into law, with only seven members voting against it. The three strikes initiative stemmed from the killing of Polly Klass by Richard Allen Davis, a convicted felon.

The killing outraged the entire state but what enraged people even more was that Davis had been in and out of prison his whole life and was still free to kill again. Soon people began calling for laws that would put repeat violent offenders behind bars for life. The premise of the new laws became an easy issue for politicians to back. To oppose such legislation seemed to be political suicide, so most politicians backed the initiative. Although many civil liberties groups opposed such mandatory sentencing measures there was little they could in the face of tremendous voter approval.

Many voters did not realize that this bill could put potentially incarcerate people for ludicrous amounts after the commission of a minor offense. Even more voters did not realize the cost of implementing such a bill. Now that this new legislation has been in effect for a year and the tremendous negative effects it have become obvious we must repeal it. One of the issues that must be considered when imposing mandatory sentencing is the increased cost of incarceration. In the state of California it costs $20,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate under normal circumstances(Cost 1).

This amount of money could put one person through a state college for two or three years. According to Beth Carter the three strikes law has placed 1,300 people in prison for a third strike offense and 14,000 people in prison on a second strike offense(1). The current recidivism rate in California is 70%(2), which means that out of those 14,000 people that almost 10,000 will be back in prison for a third strike. To imprison those 1,300 third strike offenders for the mandatory minimum of twenty-five years will cost the state of California $812,500,000.

To support these inmates for longer periods of time we will have to increase the amount of money going to our prison system. This means that either spending in other areas will be cut or an increase of taxes. Neither of which is highly favored by voters. On a national level the Justice Departments budget has increased an alarming 162% since 1987(Cost 2). The money that is being spent incarcerating these people can be more well spent in other areas. The money can be spent on crime prevention and rehabilitation, rather than retribution.

Before the three strikes law was enacted it had been estimated that to keep up with the growing prison population on a national level that it was necessary to spend $100,000,000 per week on our prison system(Ogutu). Now that we will be having more and more criminals behind bars we shall have to spend even more money building and keeping up our overcrowded prisons. Of these people that taxpayers are paying to imprison Mauer suggests that as many as 80% will be non-violent offenders. So far 80% of the second and third strike offenses have been for non-violent crimes, most of these being drug offenses(23).

There have only been only 53 people with second and third strike convictions for rape, murder, and kidnapping(Carter 1). This law’s lack of effectiveness clearly does not warrant its huge price. The other aspect to consider in the implementation of the three strikes legislation is its effect on non-violent offenders. These are the people hardest hit by this law. It is difficult see how society can justify sending a drug addict to prison for 25 years at a cost of $20,000 per year when the money could be used to fund drug rehabilitation centers and alternative programs for our youth.

Most drug users are not in need prison, they are in need of help for their addictions. If a fraction of the money it would cost to imprison them is put toward drug rehabilitation programs it would save the state money, while at the same time helping the individual. The three strikes legislation is directly aimed at violent crime, but its track record has shown that it has missed the mark by a long shot. Some offenders have been convicted for a third strike on relatively small offenses.

For example, a man named Steven Gordon was convicted for his third strike after stealing a wallet that had $100 dollars in it. His previous offenses had all been non-violent, yet he was convicted under our three strikes law(Franklin 26). This is not an isolated incident either. Franklin cites numerous examples of cases where people were convicted under this legislation for non-violent offenses(26). These types of cases just illustrate how the three strikes legislation is targeting non-violent offenders, as opposed to its goal of targeting violent criminals.

After one year in effect it is easy to see what our three-strikes legislation has done. It has become easy to picture the long term effects of such broad legislation on our society. Although this law was enacted by the will of the people, it has not carried out the will of the people. People wanted a law that would put dangerous repeat offenders behind bars for life. Instead we are now putting an increasingly large number of non-violent offenders behind bars for extended periods of time.

It would be easy to justify the cost of removing a violent menace from our society, but justifying the cost of imprisoning people who are of no threat to anyone but themselves is difficult. We must look closely at what this legislation has done so far. It has placed many more non-violent offenders in prison than violent offenders. The legislation stands to cost the state millions of dollars per year to incarcerate people of longer prison terms. Clearly the three-strikes law has not served its intended purpose it must be repealed.

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