A decade after it was enacted, California’s three-strikes sentencing law has had little impact on violent crime while costing taxpayers $8 billion to imprison tens of thousands of felons, most of them for nonviolent offenses, according to a study released Friday.
The report by the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute also found that blacks have been imprisoned under the law at 10 times the rate of whites, while the rate for Hispanics has been almost 80% greater than for whites.
Three-strikes inmates in California now number more than 42,000 – one-fourth of the state’s prison population, according to the study.
Supporters of the sentencing measure, widely viewed as the toughest of its kind in the U.S., dismissed the study, saying putting repeat criminals in jail has saved $28 billion in costs associated with their crimes.
The law doubles the sentence for an ex-felon convicted of a second felony. Someone with two prior convictions for violent or serious crimes, if convicted of a third felony of any type, can be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
The three-strikes law “has been the most effective criminal justice initiative in the history of California,” said former Secretary of State Bill Jones, the law’s coauthor.
The report’s findings included these:
• Nearly 65% of those convicted of second or third strikes were serving time in prison for nonviolent crimes. They included 672 third-strikers serving 25 years to life in prison for drug possession.
• While only two ex-felons were serving 25 years to life for petty theft a decade ago, that number soared to 354 by last September.
• The six largest California counties using three strikes most frequently had lower decreases in crime rates than the six that used the law less often. Similarly, states that did not have three-strikes laws had lower average rates of violent crime than the states with the tough sentencing law.