CALIFORNIA COMMENTARY : ‘Three Strikes’ Is Working, but Who’s Going to Pay the Bill? : More than 6,000 cases have been filed in L.A. County alone, clogging the system from D.A.'s office to courts.
In the five months since the “three strikes and you’re out” bill was signed into law, many people have speculated about its potential effect on the criminal-justice system. My educated guesses about what might happen are becoming reality.
Between March 7, when this law went into effect, and July 29, my office has filed 749 “third-strike” cases, 1,998 “second-strike” cases and 3,469 “first-strike” cases. Second- and third-strike convictions carry enhanced penalties: double the usual term for a second strike and 25 years to life for a third strike. Obviously, a criminal defendant who is facing such harsh penalties will be less likely to plead guilty. Criminal cases are beginning to back up and clog our already overburdened court system. Many more cases will go to trial than in the past.
What does this mean for the District Attorney’s office? In April, I reached an agreement with the Board of Supervisors to accept a budget for the coming year at the same level as last year. The fallout from “three strikes,” however, was not taken into account. My office was recently audited by the Grand Jury. The conclusion: We are grossly understaffed and underfinanced. We simply do not have the resources to handle the increasing workload caused by “three strikes.”
The new law does change the criminal- justice system, but at a cost. It will cost taxpayers a great deal to provide the additional prosecutors, public defenders and courts needed to handle the vastly increased trial workload that this law is creating. And the price tag on incarcerating increased numbers of prisoners will obviously be very high, too. It is my sincere hope that our citizens, acting through their elected officials, will provide the funds necessary to meet the burdens of the “three strikes” law. It is imperative that the funds do not come at the expense of education or health services, for that will simply perpetuate cycles of criminality and we will never be able to build enough prisons.
Some have suggested that the application of this law will result in Draconian sentences being imposed on hapless criminals who commit minor crimes (but who, of course, have prior convictions for serious or violent crimes). I am doing my utmost to see that no miscarriages of justice occur. What many people do not know is that the law gives prosecutors the discretion to strike a prior conviction “in the furtherance of justice.” It is always the duty of my office to seek justice. If a defense attorney believes that a wholly inappropriate sentence will result from his or her client’s conviction, my prosecutors will consider the arguments presented. In fact, in a comprehensive policy I issued on “three strikes,” I gave my prosecutors guidelines to follow when considering whether a prior should be dismissed.
Keep in mind, however, that we will not dismiss priors or plea bargain in inappropriate cases. What I require of my prosecutors is the exercise of their judgment to fulfill our ultimate goal: protection of the public. Repeat offenders who pose a threat to our community will be treated as the law requires.
I believe the “three strikes” law was passed because the citizens of this state were tired of a criminal-justice system that imposed lenient sentences on violent criminals; tired of a system that had a prison revolving-door policy that did not punish or deter; tired of a criminal-justice system that certainly did not protect citizens from violent criminals. There are cases in which prosecutors have always wanted to be able to put criminals behind bars for much longer sentences than the courts would impose, and this law has given them the opportunity to do so.
I remain in favor of the “three strikes” concept. It is my obligation to enforce the law, and I will do so vigorously and fairly, but I will also continue to be heard. I don’t foresee any substantial change in the near future; and if anyone currently charged with a second- or third-strike felony hopes there is going to be a quick change, he or she has a long wait.