California prosecutors have steadily cut back on seeking life sentences for repeat offenders under the state’s controversial “three strikes and you’re out” law, the Los Angeles Times says.
Statewide, the number of 25-years-to-life sentences for a third strike has dropped more than 50 percent since the peak in 1996. Falling crime rates account for some of that decline, but prosecutors, defense lawyers and independent analysts agree that district attorneys are more selective in deciding when to seek a third strike.
“Prosecutors are beginning to more finely calibrate their use of the three-strikes law,” said Charles Hobson of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento who successfully defended the constitutionality of the law before the U.S. Supreme Court this year.
The change has been most notable in Los Angeles County, where District Attorney. Steve Cooley has halted prosecution of most nonviolent third-strikers. Just one of every three potential third-strike cases has been prosecuted to the full extent of the law since he took office in December 2000.
Under Cooley’s policy violent offenses and major drug possession charges are normally treated as third strikes. But nonviolent offenses or lesser drug possession charges are presumed not to be third strikes. A prosecutor can overcome that presumption and bring a third-strike case against a nonviolent defendant, but only with approval of higher officials in the district attorney’s office.
Cooley’s policy put Los Angeles County, origin of 41 percent of the state’s three-strikes cases, into line with policies followed in San Francisco and Alameda counties.
Unlike most of the 24 other states that have adopted versions of the three-strikes law, California’s applies to violent and nonviolent offenses committed by anyone who has been convicted of two violent or serious felonies. Sponsors of the law argue that putting repeat offenders away for life, even if their final crimes are nonviolent, is what was intended.
“Everyone wants to lock up really bad people,” said Mike Reynolds, the Fresno photographer whose daughter’s murder inspired the California law. “We’re just having trouble figuring out who they are.”