Rethink the strikes

Back in 1993, when 12-year-old Polly Klaas was kidnapped and murdered by Richard Allen Davis, fear of violent crime among suburban voters was at a fever pitch. Klaas’ abduction was every suburban parent’s worst nightmare, and the fact that Davis had recently been paroled from prison despite a long history of violent crime only made it worse. Many became convinced that outrages like the Klaas murder were the fault of a lenient judicial system.

Urged on by Polly’s grandfather, Joe Klaas, voters approved the tough mandatory sentences for repeat felons that have come to be known as “three strikes,” requiring enhanced penalties for second felonies and terms of 25 years to life for a third. Though the intent was to prevent people like Davis from committing crimes like the Klaas murder, it’s now become clear that the law as drafted is much more likely to affect nonviolent offenders—and the state budget.

Unlike most other states that have a three-strikes law, California does not differentiate between serious, violent crime and other offenses when it comes to second and third strikes. On the 10-year anniversary of the three-strikes law, it’s clear that California is handing out some incredibly harsh penalties for crimes as inconsequential as stealing a slice of pizza or shoplifting DVDs and is crowding its prison system with petty thieves and drug offenders. According to a recently published study by the Justice Policy Institute, 57 percent of those receiving 25-year-to-life sentences in California were convicted of nonviolent offenses. The cost of incarcerating these inmates adds up to more than $8 billion so far, the study estimates.

There are those who hold that this is money well-spent. Crime is down 40 percent in California since 1994, and they credit the tougher sentencing laws. But studies by the Rand Corporation and the National Institute of Justice have held that California’s drop in crime was a reflection of national trends—an improved economy and an aging population—and not the three-strikes law. In fact, statistics show a bigger drop in crime in several states—including New York—that don’t have the law. In California, the biggest declines came in counties where the law is applied with the least frequency.

Habitual criminals like Davis who commit violent felonies deserve the stiff sentences that the three-strikes law imposes. But an increasing number of people—including Joe Klaas—now realize that the original law was written too broadly. He is leading the group Citizens Against Violent Crime, which is circulating an initiative for the November ballot that would limit three-strikes penalties to violent crime.

The reforms the group advocates are pragmatic and fair, and they deserve support. It is simply not right—and certainly not economically practical for cash-strapped California—to be handing out hundreds of mandatory life sentences each year to petty criminals.