Thursday, March 22, 2012

It's an annual event...

Wow, is it that time of year again (already)? Well, I guess the (presidential) primary season IS well under way throughout the nation, so I suppose it seems appropriate for our various media outlets to begin expressing their collective outrage against California's 3-Strikes Law. Every year around this time, our news outlets begin their quest to "somehow" water down the law by offering almost every foundation or group (usually made up of inmates, their families, defense attorneys, Martin Sheen, etc.) unfettered access to their pages and/or newsrooms.

Recently, our local newspaper (Sacramento Bee) ran a "guest editorial" by a group called the
Brennan Center for Justice. The Brennan Center ran with the usual "pizza thief" analogies and then cited high prison costs, which they say would be better used for rehabilitation programs and the like. Nothing new here...however, they added a new twist to their yearly sojourn, equating the 3-Strikes Law with torture (water boarding) and even Japanese internment. That's a stretch.

But why go there? Well, maybe because the law is working. The law was overwhelmingly passed by voters in 1994 and has indeed reduced crime significantly. According to the California District Attorney's Association 10-year Retrospective, overall crime went down 35% in California from 1993 through 2002. As well, violent crime went down 44% during that same period.

Also, the law is NOT the same as first enacted. The Courts were initially denied a role in determining a fair sentence if the defendant had 2 or more qualifying prior convictions regardless of the nature of the present offense. Further, there was no discretion for prosecutors to dismiss qualifying prior convictions, regardless of the fairness of the ultimate sentence a defendant would receive. Today, such is NOT the case.

The facts reveal both the Courts and District Attorneys ARE using their discretionary powers responsibly. For example, the Sacramento County District Attorney's office sought and obtained just 16 such convictions in 2010 (as compared with 94 in 1996). Similarly, statewide 3-Strikes convictions went from more than 1,700 in 1996 alone to less than 200 per year in the last three years.

Granted, there are multiple reasons for this downward trend. In addition to District Attorney discretion, there is the closure of the "revolving door" of justice, i.e. repeat offenders being tried and/or plea bargained out time and time again. Additionally, the 10-20-Life law was enacted in 1997 and created much stricter penalties for specified offenses involving possession of and/or use of a firearm.

However, the specifics of the 3-Strikes Law and the lack of specificity of its detractors are most telling. A "serious" or "violent" felony is very specific and clearly outlined in the California Penal Code. Again, detractors can only point to anecdotal evidence (i.e. pizza thief) because when they start throwing "prison cost" into the equation, most reasonable people can see incarceration is but a small part of the overall "cost" of our justice system.

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