Guest Opinion: We were misled on effects of 'three strikes' law, which needs reform
In the belief that we needed a law that would impose life sentences on repeat violent offenders, Californians passed the three-strikes law in 1994.
We were misled. Turns out that what we got was a three-strikes law that has locked up thousands of nonviolent, petty offenders for life.
During my nearly 19 years as a Superior Court judge in Santa Clara County, I sentenced many defendants to prison under the three-strikes law. Most of them more than deserved their lengthy sentences, and there were those who did not.
Since 1993, 25 states and the federal government have passed some form of the three-strikes law. California's law, however, is much broader than any other state's. We are the only state that imposes a 25-years-to-life sentence for criminals whose third felonies are non-violent or non-serious.
In 2004, there were 7,000 third-strikers serving life sentences. Of that number, 4,200 or 60 percent of them had non-violent or non-serious third strikes.
These are some of the third-strike offenses for which people are now serving 25 years to life: stealing a spare tire; possession of a stolen bicycle; shoplifting a $70 drill from Sears; possession of three stolen ceiling fans; possession of .04 grams of cocaine; shoplifting 21 packages of aspirin; helping someone else steal baby formula and Tylenol; possession of less than 2 grams of marijuana in a prison facility; shoplifting a package of AA batteries worth $2.69; stealing a sweater and a shirt from Nordstrom; shoplifting a pack of T-shirts worth $33; conspiracy to sell $20 worth of cocaine; shoplifting a baseball glove; welfare fraud amounting to $2,100; attempted burglary of an unoccupied car at a car wash; and taking a bicycle out of a garage.
The three-strikes law inflicts the same punishment on a rapist as it does a shoplifter. It gives the same 25-years-to-life sentence to an armed robber that it gives to a petty drug offender. I find this approach to sentencing utterly lacking in fairness and common sense. Simple drug possession, shoplifting and other petty crimes have no business in California's three-strikes law.
There are 33 prisons in California, with more than 170,000 inmates. Our prisons are overcrowded and have been pronounced by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and two federal judges as being completely out of control. It costs more than $20,000 per year to house one inmate. But as these three-strike lifers age, they will cost us even more because of age-related health issues. Estimates are that the costs to taxpayers will rise to between $70,000 and $100,000 per inmate per year. In contrast, one year of drug treatment is approximately $10,000.
California's three-strikes law costs too much and targets the wrong people.
And there is the issue of race -- African Americans constitute just 6.5 percent of the state's population, but are 44.7 percent of those serving life under the three-strikes law. Whites constitute 47.1 percent of the state's population and are 25.4 percent of third strikers. In Santa Clara County, 27 percent of those sentenced to life as third strikers are African American, yet are a mere 2.7 percent of the county's population. I do not believe that the drafters of the three-strikes law were racists. The fact is, however, that this law is being applied in a racially discriminatory fashion.
In November 2004 the majority of those Californians who voted, defeated Proposition 66, an initiative that would have removed non-violent and non-serious crimes from the three-strikes law. I was a vocal supporter of this initiative. However, a last-minute infusion of $4 million from the governor and from the prison guards union, which paid for a series of racist and misleading television ads, frightened many voters into opposing it. Still, I remain ever hopeful.
I firmly believe in and support our criminal justice system. As such, I insist that it be a system that is fair and just, that it be a system that imposes punishment commensurate with the crime. California's three-strikes law is anathema to such a system.
Judges ought not be forced to mete out long prison sentences for petty crimes, as I formerly had to do.
Because I was unable to change the system from within, I left the bench. Now, I work to change it from without.
LaDoris Cordell is a Palo Alto resident and Stanford University administrator who serves on the Palo Alto City Council, while actively campaigning to modify the state's three-strikes sentencing law and working on other social-justice issues. She can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.