Freed 3-strikes inmates have low recidivism rate, report finds

L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey has issued a statement defending how her office is handling the cases of prisoners seeking release under Proposition 36, which changed California's mandatory three-strikes sentencing.
(Christina House / For The Times)

More than 1,000 inmates previously sentenced to life in prison have been freed since voters approved changes to California’s three-strikes law in November, with only a handful charged with new offenses since their release, according to a report released Monday.

The authors of the report, who helped write and campaign for the ballot initiative, said third-strikers released under Proposition 36 have a lower recidivism rate than other prisoners freed on parole, helping save the state millions of dollars by opening up space in crowded prisons without jeopardizing public safety.

But the authors raised alarms about a lack of housing, substance abuse and other types of reentry programs available to third-strikers released from prison. And they expressed concern that L.A. County has been lagging behind other counties in clearing its backlog of cases in which inmates are seeking release under the ballot measure.


More than 2,000 inmates statewide are awaiting court decisions on whether they should be resentenced under the proposition. More than 800 of those have filed requests in L.A. County, the report said.

“There are so many prisoners who are sitting in prison waiting to be released, and even those who are released don’t have the benefit of the kinds of rehabilitation and reentry services that are desperately needed,” said David Mills, a Stanford University law professor who was a prime backer of the proposition.

The ballot measure, which won 69% of the statewide vote, allows many third-strikers to seek shorter prison terms if their third strikes were for non-serious, nonviolent crimes. Under the new law, judges must reduce the sentences for eligible inmates unless doing so would endanger the public.

The new report was published by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Stanford Three Strikes Project, an initiative that uses Stanford law students to represent inmates sentenced under the three-strikes law for relatively minor felonies. Mills serves as co-chair of the legal defense fund’s board of directors and founded the university’s three-strikes project.

Michael Romano, who runs the Stanford Law School project, said the bottleneck in L.A. County appears to lie with the district attorney’s office. Prosecutors, he said, were taking longer than other district attorneys to research the backgrounds of third-strikers before deciding whether to oppose resentencing.

Romano acknowledged that Los Angeles has the largest caseload of any county but said the district attorney’s office has not committed enough prosecutors to handle the volume and appears to be conducting a much stricter and more time-consuming review of cases than other prosecutorial offices.

“These are people who … voters have said should not be in prison any longer,” he said.

Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey released a statement defending her office’s handling of the cases, saying prosecutors had reviewed roughly 40% of the county’s 1,078 cases. About 260 inmates have been resentenced while prosecutors have so far opposed sentence reductions in 170 cases, she said.

Lacey said a staff that includes one part-time and five full-time prosecutors has been conducting thorough reviews of each inmate’s criminal history and disciplinary record in prison to determine whether they pose a danger. She said some inmates serving life sentences for nonviolent offenses might have committed serious or violent crimes inside prison.

“These are difficult decisions that have lasting effect on the quality of life in Los Angeles County,” Lacey said.

So far, judges throughout the state have denied only 2% of resentencing requests, with 32% granted and 66% pending, Monday’s report said. In many counties, such as Los Angeles, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges have decided to handle the least controversial cases first.

Released third-strikers have been out of prison an average of 4.4 months, and fewer than 2% have been charged with new crimes, according to Monday’s report. That, the report said, compares favorably with the recidivism rate for non-third-strikers released from prison, which is more than 16% during the first 90 days outside prison.

Romano said most released third-strikers accused of reoffending have been charged with minor misdemeanors, such as drug crimes, joy riding and providing a false name to police.

“For every one person who has committed a new crime, 100 are out and doing extraordinarily well,” he said.

Nevertheless, he and Mills said more needs to be done. They called on the state and counties to provide former three-strikes inmates with substance abuse counseling, job training, mental health services and housing — resources that they said were essential to helping former third-strikers live productive lives outside prison.