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While I applaud those who work to ensure that even the seemingly worst defendants are treated fairly and humanely, I’ve always seen the logic of draconian sentences for psychopaths like Richard Allen Davis (the gloating kidnapper and murderer of 12 year-old Polly Klaas in 1993 and poster-demon for the Three Strikes initiative even though the law wouldn’t have prevented his particular crime). Some people commit acts so heinous they can never be released back to society. 

So, when I first heard of the Three Strikes initiative in 1994, I was intrigued. Then I read it. Clearly, the measure’s revved-up sentencing provisions went far beyond just banishing the Richard Davises. There was a whole roster of offenses that could be Third Strikes, some potentially trivial or occurring after decades of law abiding behavior. A cabal of hardline politicians and interests were exploiting public fury at a few wanton killers to sneak through a prosecutors’ dream by which not just the most dangerous murderers, rapists, and mayhemers, but also chronically annoying local druggies and kleptos could be permanently exiled to prison, to the relief of local law enforcement but at horrendous state taxpayer costs. Even Polly Klaas’s father thought that was too much. 

The result was predictable, if you know California. One set of jurisdictions used Three Strikes sparingly and surgically. Another set went lockup wild. The two biggest contrasts are San Francisco and Kern counties, which have about the same populations and felony totals. Sixteen years after Three Strikes took effect, San Francisco had found a total of 43 locals meriting the ultimate 25-years-to-life banishment. Three-fourths were violent offenders; just 9 were dropped down the hole for property crimes, and none for drugs. 

In that same period, Kern County sent 412 up on Third Strikes – 10 times more per felony arrest. Fewer than half of Kern’s Third Strikers were violent; 115 were property and 111 were drug, offenders, including 83 for simple drug possession. Yes, having participated in police ride-alongs, I know the chronic thieves and addicts (what we call Otises” after the chronic drunk on the old Andy Griffith Show) decorating Bakersfield and the Tenderloin are mammoth pains for cops and district attorneys. But costing taxpayers $1.5 million to lock up each one of these screwups for life in order to get them out of the hair of local law is the definition of an unaffordable luxury subsidizing counties unwilling to manage their Otises. 

The punchline is that San Francisco enjoyed dramatically larger declines in rates of violent and other serious crimes from 1994 to the present than did Kern. Every analysis of the dozens we’ve done over the past 15 years–including the latest, 2011 update to our 1999 study–shows county populations and age groups most imprisoned under Three Strikes showed no improvements in violent or most other offenses compared to those that rarely encountered the law. Three Strikes shows up bigtime in budget trends – the current 8,700 Third Strikers will cost taxpayers $10 billion to imprison for their terms, making them by far the most invested-in people in California – but is invisible in terms of effects on crime trends. 

Three Strikes’ failures expose both conservative myth that locking up every troublesome type will cut crime, and the liberal myth that crime is simply a demographic phenomenon involving young people in need of redirection. Three Strikes took effect at a time when gang and other violent crime was already plummeting and the state’s crime problem was rapidly shifting from younger felons to middle-aged drug abusers. From 1990 to 2009, the number of Californians age 40 and older arrested for felonies leaped from 58,000 to 111,000 as the number of illicit drug overdose deaths in this age group rose from 900 per year to over 3,000.

Three Strikes proved disastrously unsuited to handling California’s emerging drug and crime crises. Investing vast resources to imprison aging druggies and thieves driven mostly by drug problems drains resources from the type of intensive community programs that hold the most promise for addressing long term addiction. Reforming Three Strikes to confine its harshest sentencing only to the most violent incorrigibles – probably less than one-fourth of those to whom it is now applied – would both focus the law on the handful of major criminals it was intended to manage and free up massive funding to address, among other deserving items, the state’s currently intractable community drug-crime issues.