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‘3 Strikes’ Law Proving Tough on Legal System

TIMES STAFF WRITER

California’s “three strikes” law is proving to be tough not just on repeat offenders, but on Los Angeles County’s criminal justice system as well, according to a comprehensive report on the impact of the popular voter-approved law released Wednesday.

In its first year, the law has created a huge backlog of criminal cases, even longer delays in civil cases, has dramatically increased the number of high-security prisoners in the county jail system and has forced the early release of inmates being held on less serious charges, the draft report by a panel of county law enforcement experts said.

The Countywide Criminal Justice Coordination Committee said the financial burden of the law that tightened sentencing for repeat felony offenders is straining the county’s court, jail and legal systems to the breaking point.

“This report makes it unmistakably clear that the structure is weakening and that major cracks are leading to serious, unacceptable breaches in our justice system,” said Superior Court Judge James Bascue, who chaired the panel that produced the study.

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With financially strapped Los Angeles County still struggling with a multitude of fiscal problems, the report says the state must provide greater financial assistance to its most populous county.

The study found that the cost of the law, approved by voters in November, 1994, is rapidly escalating, from $101 million in the past fiscal year to $172 million this year and a projected $309 million next year.

“We are suffering dramatically by the escalating cost of ‘three strikes,’ ” said Supervisor Gloria Molina, who chairs the Criminal Justice Committee. “This is important data. We have to educate the public as well as our legislative bodies about the cost of this legislation.”

California Secretary of State Bill Jones, who co-authored the measure, defended the statute. “It’s easy to criticize, but this law is working,” he said in an interview. “It’s deterring crime. That’s what people wanted.”

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In Orange County, too, the law has increased the load on the judicial system, but it has created far less chaos than in Los Angeles County.

While only slightly more felony charges were filed last year, the number of jury trials in Orange County increased 49%. Defendants facing 25 years to life under the law now are more likely to insist on trials rather than enter plea agreements. The increase has forced even some high-ranking prosecutors to return to the courtroom to try “three-strikes” cases.

About 175 “three-strikes” cases made their way to Orange County Superior Court between March, 1994, when the law began, and last June, according to Judge David O. Carter, who oversees the criminal courts there. Ninety cases are still pending, he said.

So far, the court system has absorbed the extra cases without the kind of disruption seen in the Los Angeles County courts.

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“In the initial stages, we’ve been as successful as any county in the state,” Carter said. “In the long run, no one can predict where this is going to take us.”

Inmates facing “three-strikes” charges have exacerbated crowding problems at Orange County Jail, where a shortage of beds forced the early release of 23,600 inmates in 1994. The jail currently houses 176 people who are awaiting trial on or have been convicted of a “third-strike” felony.

“It certainly adds to the overcrowding problem. We’re short a tremendous number of beds,” said Lt. Ron Wilkerson, spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail.

Critics, including many law enforcement officials, had predicted during the campaign to pass the law that costs would escalate, courts would be backlogged and jails would be jammed.

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Before the law passed by an overwhelming majority, Jones said, prosecutors were plea-bargaining repeat offenders out of the criminal justice system. While the costs to prosecute them may be higher, Jones said, tougher sentences benefit the public because they mean less crime and fewer anguished victims in the long run.

The study does not address the question of whether the law is good or bad or whether it will ultimately be successful in reducing repeat offenses and violent crime.

“The ‘three strikes’ law does not represent ‘business as usual’ for the criminal justice system in Los Angeles County,” the report said. “Although they constitute only a small fraction of new felony filings, strike cases are tying up an excessively disproportionate share of justice system resources for prosecution, indigent defense, trial courts and jails.”

Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti said the workload for prosecutors, public defenders, law enforcement agencies and the courts is overwhelming.

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“We are literally dying on the vine,” he said. “Everyone has read about the O.J. Simpson and Heidi Fleiss cases. They don’t read about the thousands of other cases we’re prosecuting.”

Although he has not yet read the report, Garcetti said those involved in the criminal justice system knew the “three strikes” measure was “going to be a very expensive law. The citizens of our state indicated they wanted the law,” he said. “No one has come to grips with how we are going to pay for it.”

The committee found that the law has had “undeniable and serious impacts” that go well beyond dollars and cents.

Since the law was enacted last year, the county’s high-security jail population has soared from 36% to 62% of the inmates. Defendants awaiting trial now constitute almost seven of every 10 inmates; previously it was almost six in 10.

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Bascue told the committee members, who represent the courts, law enforcement, prosecutors and probation departments, that the quality of life in the county is being hurt because the law is forcing the early release of misdemeanor defendants from jail.

Because of the need to house two- or three-strike repeat offenders in the county’s jails until they stand trial, misdemeanor defendants are being released early in order to make room. Violators sentenced to a year in the county jail are now being released after just 71 days, according to the report.

Since the law specifies much stricter sentences on the second conviction for a serious or violent felony and 25 years to life on the third strike, the study found a sharp drop in plea bargains and a 25% increase in the number of criminal jury trials. “These cases are really being dragged out,” Bascue said.

The study found that “three strikes” cases are three times more likely to go to trial than all felonies and four times more likely than the same type of case before the law was enacted.

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The increase in criminal trials has caused “significant delays” in the handling of civil cases. Only 79% of civil cases filed in the county are now concluded within two years, a drop from 94% in 1992.

The sheer volume of criminal cases has forced county courthouses in Long Beach, Torrance, Compton, Pomona and Lancaster to stop hearing civil lawsuits because now they are handling so many criminal cases, Bascue said.

Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood contributed to this story.


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