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What’s Wrong With ‘3 Strikes’? : New law may be hitting wrong target

Ten months after California’s “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” law went into effect, the first assessments are in. There is some evidence that the law may indeed be doing what all Californians desperately want--reducing crime. But that decline is imposing enormous burdens on the state. If the costs of implementing “three strikes” are not met, and they are not now, the gains against crime will be lost and the state’s economic health compromised.

The law, in effect since March, imposes prison terms of 25 years to life on those convicted of a third felony. The measure specifically includes violent offenses such as murder, rape and armed robbery but also applies to such serious but nonviolent offenses as burglary. Most Californians apparently have no second thoughts about this law; voters in November overwhelmingly approved an initiative essentially identical to the statute.

SHOUTS OF ‘SUCCESS’: “Three-strikes” promoters are already declaring it a success. Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren announced Wednesday that the crime rate in California fell almost 7% during the first nine months of 1994 (murders dropped 13%). Lungren credits “three strikes,” among other factors, for the decrease.

This is good news indeed if real--determining crime rates is a notoriously inexact science--but there are storm clouds on the horizon. Both supporters and opponents agree that “three strikes” will work in the long term only if the state has enough judges, prosecutors, public defenders and prisons to prosecute and incarcerate all those convicted.

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Currently, the state does not. A new report from the nonpartisan state legislative analyst’s office finds that many of the dire predictions voiced as “three strikes” sped through the Legislature are, alas, coming to pass.

Statewide, more than 7,400 second-and-third-strikes cases had been filed through November. As predicted, fewer defendants are willing to plead guilty, gambling instead on acquittal by a jury. The increased number of criminal jury trials is starting to push civil and misdemeanor cases aside in some courts. The increased number of offenders awaiting trial in “three-strikes” cases has caused the early release from county jails of non-three-strikes offenders.

NO NEW MONEY: Worse still, there is little in Gov. Pete Wilson’s new budget to mitigate these effects on courts or counties. No money for new trial court judges--none have been added since 1987.

County officials see no significant relief for overburdened prosecutors or public defenders. And to cope with the projected surge in inmates, the governor plans to add “emergency beds” in prisons.

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More troubling, the legislative analyst also finds that the overwhelming majority of convictions under the new law are for such nonviolent offenses as possession of controlled substances or theft.

Amid the state’s continuing budget troubles, these are ominous signposts. Clearly, crime-weary California indeed is locking up more criminals--but not necessarily the most dangerous ones. Something is plainly wrong with “three strikes.”


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