Onek on Calitics: It's Time to Reform Three Strikes
"But now, more than fifteen years after the initiative’s passage, we have the benefit of facts to help us understand the true impact of Three Strikes."
It's Time to Reform Three Strikes
By David Onek
California voters overwhelmingly passed the Three Strikes initiative in 1994 based on the promise that it would take repeat violent offenders off the streets.
But now, more than fifteen years after the initiative’s passage, we have the benefit of facts to help us understand the true impact of Three Strikes.
Most Californians already know that in the wake of Three Strikes the cost of corrections has soared. Our state prison budget is now so high that California spends as much on prisons as we do on higher education.
But many Californians are surprised to learn that, under Three Strikes, Curtis Wilkerson of Los Angeles was sentenced to life for petty theft of a pair of socks; that Shane Taylor of Tulare was sentenced to life for simple possession of 0.1 gram of methamphetamine; or that Greg Taylor of Los Angeles was sentenced to life for attempting to break into a soup kitchen to get something to eat.
In fact, the majority of those put away for life under Three Strikes – over 4,000 people total – committed a minor, non-violent third strike. These non-violent third strikers will, according to the California state auditor, cost the state at least $4.8 billion over the next 25 years – almost $200 million per year.
The people named above have an advantage that the vast majority of three strikers do not -- they are all clients of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School’s Mills Legal Clinic. Under the direction of Project co-founder Michael Romano, Stanford law students have helped get a dozen non-violent third strikers released from prison after having their sentences reduced.
They are not being released because they are innocent. As Romano said on the Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast,
“Our clients are, in almost every circumstance, absolutely guilty. We’re not going into court and saying that they didn’t do it. What we’re saying is that the punishment that they received for this petty crime is disproportionate.”
This disproportionate punishment is unjust, and it is bankrupting our state. We are wasting precious resources to unnecessarily incarcerate minor offenders who pose little threat to society for huge periods of time – and draining resources away from the law enforcement agencies, community organizations and schools that can truly prevent crime and keep us safe.
Simply put, it is time to reform Three Strikes – so that it is focused on the serious and violent repeat offenders we all agree society must be protected from. Because Three Strikes was passed by a voter initiative, it can only be changed by initiative. In the past, Three Strikes was viewed as untouchable. But now, with the state facing fiscal catastrophe, and Romano and his students bringing attention to the unjust extremes of the law with each new client that gets released, there is momentum for change.
Romano thinks that there is another ingredient necessary for successful reform: political leadership. He says that “with a few notable exceptions, there has been very little leadership on this issue from our elected law enforcement leaders.”
Now is the time to show the leadership what it will take to return to sensible, cost-effective and fair criminal justice polices in California.
David Onek is a Senior Fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, former Commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission, and candidate for San Francisco District Attorney. You can listen to Onek’s recent interview with Romano on the Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast.