Twenty years ago, California voters overwhelmingly passed the “three strikes” law that has come to symbolize America’s deeply irrational and misguided obsession with harsh and inflexible sentencing. It set a life sentence for anyone with a third felony conviction, no matter how minor or nonviolent — even for stealing a pair of socks.
The law contributed to a dramatic increase in California’s prison population, which grew so far beyond capacity that in 2011 the Supreme Court ruled that horrendous prison conditions violated the Constitution. In 2012, Californians voted to soften the law, allowing prisoners whose third strike was a nonserious and nonviolent crime to seek early release. Since December 2012, about 1,500 inmates have been released under the amended law. Their recidivism rates so far are a fraction of the state average.
Last month, the Federal District Court overseeing the overcrowding litigation issued a scathing order accusing state officials of taking “no significant steps toward reducing the prison population and relieving overcrowding despite repeated orders” by the court. It reluctantly gave the state two final years to get its prison population down to 110,000 inmates (137.5 percent of prison capacity), provided it adopts several immediate reforms. One, offer second-strikers who have completed at least half of their sentence a chance at parole. Two, consider creating a sentencing commission that would recommend systemic, evidence-based and tested reforms.
As important as reducing prison populations is making sure that people don’t go right back in. That will require postprison programs focusing on jobs, housing, and treatment for drug addiction and mental illness. California has budgeted for this as part of a statewide reform initiative, but the money needs to be spent wisely. (A report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office criticized Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to move prisoners to county jails and private prisons. It said the state should focus on longer-term solutions, like reducing sentences for some crimes and diverting more offenders away from prison.)
Governor Brown, who has thwarted meaningful reform in the past, has begun to show some openness to change — for example, in signing off on parole releases at a far higher rate than any governor in decades. But governors come and go. Permanently fixing California’s penal system will require the rational approach that a sentencing commission can bring.