A group of criminologists and public officials met in Southern California earlier this week to discuss one of the state’s most famous laws, widely known as the “Three strikes and you’re out” law. There are three strikes laws in many states, but California’s is widely considered the harshest in the country. In California, the law calls for longer sentences for anyone convicted of a felony who has previously been convicted of one or more serious or violent felonies. Notably, second and third “strikes” can be any felony: from violent assault, to theft, to drug possession.
The symposium, live tweeted by KQED’s Scott Shafer, covered the fall-out of three strikes since it first passed in 1994. Law enforcement officials’ perspectives on the law seemed to follow the political culture of their home counties. Take this exchange Shafer described between San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and his former counterpart in Kern County, Ed Jagels:
10:32am: San Francisco District Attorney DA George Gascon said Three Strikes had created a “mess” of “over incarceration.” in California. He said it contributes to “families being destroyed” which leads to social breakdown, increased drop outs and a continuation of criminality in those families. “We need to create more tax payers instead of more prisoners.”
10:32am: Fellow panelist Ed Jagels, retired Kern County District Attorney widely criticized for false prosecution of child molesting in Bakersfield, said of the panel “I feel like I’ve entered the Twilight Zone. When I looked at the panel I was relieved to see another DA – but then I realized he was from San Francisco.”
10:32am: Jagels said Three Strikes “is working.” Among Jagels’ use of the law – he prosecuted a man who stole a dollar’s worth of donuts under Three Strikes with a 25-to-life sentence. His rationale: the guy had two prior felonies in the 1970s.
10:59am: Jagels: San Francisco should not be the model for approach to crime fighting. San Francisco prosecutes far fewer narcotics, Three Strikes and death penalty cases.
The exchange is pretty typical of the debate over three strikes: some say it has needlessly contributed to California’s prison overcrowding problem (as of December 2010, 40,998 inmates were behind bars on third strike offenses; 8,727 of them for third strikes, which carry a 25-years-to-life sentence). Others, like Jagels, consistently argue that three strikes is a tool for getting people who won’t change their criminal behavior off the streets for long periods of time–and that counties like San Francisco are too soft on repeat criminals.
By the numbers, Jagels’ assessment of San Francisco’s use of three strikes is accurate. The law leaves a lot of discretion to district attorneys on whether to count crimes as “strikes.” According to a recent report by Mike Males of the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the eight counties that used the law the most, including Kern, Tulare, Los Angeles, and Sacramento, sent strikers to prison at 2.2 times the rate of the eight counties who used the law the least, including San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa. Interestingly, the report found, the counties that heavily used three strikes “did not experience declines in violent crime relative to counties that used the law sparingly.” In fact, the report concludes, “strike sentencing levels have no measurable effect on crime trends.”