The Value of Second Thoughts : Don't let Prop. 184 block improvement of 'three strikes'

Like all too many California ballot initiatives, Proposition 184, the "three-strikes" measure, asks the voters to lock themselves into a risky decision and throw away the key. "Three strikes" is already in the lawbooks. Thus Proposition 184 would accomplish one thing and one thing only: It would make the law virtually impossible to change.

We think that the law could be modified to provide the same protection from crime for far less money. And so we urge voters to think about taxes as well as safety and vote against 184. Californians should see how the 1994 law works out before we write it in stone.

As a law passed by the Legislature, "three strikes" is not irrevocably fixed. When state legislators make a mistake they can correct it; not so an initiative adopted directly by the electorate. The Legislature is typically powerless to make the slightest change in an adopted ballot measure.

Proposition 184 needs only a simple majority to pass. Thereafter, to quote its closing words, "The provisions of this measure shall not be amended by the Legislature except by statute passed in each house by roll-call vote entered in the journal, two-thirds (italics ours) of the membership concurring," or by another voter initiative.

A two-thirds roll-call vote of both houses for any revision of "three strikes" is unlikely when a yes vote, whatever its real meaning, can so easily be turned into a charge of "soft on crime." Direct revision by the voters is even more unlikely, for it takes about $1 million to qualify a ballot initiative.

"Three strikes," as written, would undeniably improve public safety. As pure deterrence, the law has an intuitive logic that any American who understands baseball can grasp. Confirming that intuition to a point, a new RAND study estimates that "three strikes" would reduce serious crime by about 28%. That's a very significant improvement.

The trouble is, this improvement is expected to increase the cost of corrections by a crushing 120%, adding about $5.5 billion to the state budget (for comparison, the current budget deficit is less than $3 billion). Those billions will have to come either from increased taxes or from a steep reduction in what the state spends on higher education. Higher education is the only major entry in the budget that is not now protected by law. All Californians want to reduce crime, but many also want to go to college or want that public benefit for a spouse or a child, and higher education pays huge dividends to the state economy. Can we have both public safety and public higher education? Only if we preserve for ourselves the right to consider intelligent, cheaper alternatives to "three strikes" as now written.

One such alternative eliminates all talk of "strikes" and simply sends all those convicted of a serious felony to jail for the full term of their sentence with no time off for good behavior. RAND estimates that this alternative would achieve 100% of the crime reduction bought by "three strikes" for only 75% of the budget hike. (Not that that's cheap.) If that option is so much less expensive, why not at least consider it? Doubling the penalty after the second strike, as the law does, but skipping the strike-three part would buy 85% of the increase in public safety for less than half the cost.

For now, we're not arguing hard for either alternative--only urging that the voters preserve their right to second thoughts. They can do that by voting "no" on Proposition 184.

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