Don’t expect California’s “three strikes and you’re out” law, which is 10 years old this month, to be repealed, says the Christian Science Monitor. There is doubt that a petition drive to get a referendum on November’s ballot to make the law apply only to violent offenders will succeed.
Prosecutors are using the law not as it was written but how they believe it was intended. “The public was not enamored of some of these bizarre, draconian sentences,” says Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley. “So I established a very clear policy that presumes if an offense is violent or serious, we will pursue three strikes. If the new offense is not serious or not violent, we won’t.”
Nearly half the states and the federal overnment have passed similar legislation, but none is so harsh as California’s.
Experts credit prosecutorial restraint for Californians’ seeming acceptance of the law. “Because it’s not being implemented the way it was voted in, people don’t seem as upset about it. To me, that’s the headline,” says Jack Riley of the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Ca. “The system has adjusted itself so the odds are lowered that there will be the kind of extreme sentences that were initially associated with it.”
Bill Jones, who coauthored the law as a state legislator and is now running for the U.S. Senate, asserts that it has saved the state and potential victims $28 billion by preventing 2 million would-be crimes. Critics note that crime has dropped across the country, whether or not a state has a three-strikes law. States without such laws, like New York, have had greater drops in violent crime and lower growth rates in their prison systems than California.
The law’s supporters say that for every arrest, many more crimes go unrecorded. “So you can be sure those three felonies don’t represent the sum total of that person’s life of crime,” says Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute in New York, a conservative think tank. “[These laws] are a vital tool for prosecutors to determine if a person is incorrigible.”