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.