Prisoners serving long sentences under California’s “three strikes” law are so expensive that legislative analysts say releasing some of them early could eventually save the state $100 million.
A proposed ballot measure, called the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012 [PDF], would amend the landmark sentencing law that brought jail terms of 25 years to life to criminals convicted of three offenses.
Major savings to California taxpayers are central to proponents’ pitch for the measure. But if it passes, the big reduction in state prison spending is not guaranteed.
The measure would narrow courts’ authority to sentence “third-strikers” to 25 years or more in prison unless their new offense is serious or violent in nature. Secondly, it would allow a select group of third-strikers serving a decades-long sentence for a minor crime to apply for a reduced term.
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Written by a pair of Stanford University law professors, David Mills and Michael Romano, the initiative contends it would “save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars every year for at least ten years.”
The state Legislative Analyst’s Office agreed late last year that it would cut prison costs [PDF], though not quite as significantly as claimed. Savings from the measure could save California more than $100 million in total after years of releasing third-strikers early, the office’s report states.
But it isn’t clear yet how many prisoners would be eligible for reduced sentences.
“The measure bars some third strikers with specified current and prior crimes (such as murder and certain sex, gun, and drug felonies) from being eligible for resentencing," the legislative analyst's report said.
Judges would have final say on cutting prison time, based on whether an inmate poses an “unreasonable risk to public safety.”
Dan Newman, a spokesman for the initiative’s supporters, said they estimate there are about 3,000 third-strikers incarcerated on a minor conviction who could apply to the court.
Data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation suggests the real number is much lower.
At the end of December, state prisons held 4,501 third-strikers on convictions for non-violent or non-sexual crimes, Lee Seale, head of research and internal oversight at the corrections department, said in a written statement.
A large majority of them (3,187) had been previously sentenced to prison for “crimes against persons.” That category includes murder and several violent and sex offenses that would exclude prisoners from asking for a reduced term.
Only 1,314 third-strikers have no prior crime against persons on their records.
This calculation does not provide a precise accounting of how many third-strikers might benefit, or how much money taxpayers could save.
The measure’s proponents still must gather 504,760 voter signatures to secure a spot on the November ballot.
The California State Auditor detailed in a 2010 report that third-strikers cost the state almost $20 billion over the course of their incarceration. A third of that expense was for health care.
Third-strikers are older than the general prison population. Corrections department figures show that 88 percent of inmates with three strikes [PDF] are at least 40 years old. Only about 42 percent [PDF] of all California inmates are among the over-40 set.
There are obvious reasons for the disparity. To collect three strikes takes at least three convictions, which often are spaced out by stretches in prison. Further, long sentences are the whole point of the law. Most third-strikers receive at least 25 years, according to state corrections data.