Three strikes reform could save $100 million a year

jail televisionsVoters will have the chance to dramatically remake California’s criminal justice system this fall.

A ballot initiative to repeal the death penalty in California has already qualified for the November ballot:  Instead of death, the convicted would face life terms without the possibility of parole.

And last week, supporters of an initiative to reform the Three Strikes law submitted more than 830,000 signatures to the state  (they need just 504,760) to qualify for the November ballot. This would:

Voters came this close to revamping Three Strikes back in 2004, when a ballot initiative mandating that the third strike be a violent or serious crime was overwhelmingly ahead in the polls just 10 days  before the election. Enter then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s commercials against the change  – commercials bankrolled by O.C. billionaire bad boy Henry T. Nicholas III to the tune of $3.5 million – and the turnaround was dramatic. The measure failed.

The economy was a lot better back in 2004, and the cost of Three Strikes wasn’t as galvanizing an issue as it may turn out to be this year.

A scathing report by the California State Auditor in 2009 found that the number of prisoners in the California Department of Corrections decreased by about 1 percent over three yearsbut its  expenses increased by 32 percent over that time period anyway. It painted  a disturbing portrait of a department reeling under the weight of spiking salaries, high overtime payouts, generous retirement benefits and a mandatory Three Strikes policy that its employee union fervently backed – and which had swelled California’s prisons to their breaking point.

One out of every four prisoners in the system were third strikers, the auditor found. The cost of keeping them in jail for these longer sentences: $19.2 billion.

“The Three Strikes Reform Act helps restore fairness and justice to the Three Strikes law,” said NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Jeffrey Robinson in a prepared statement announcing the results of the signature drive. “As the voters originally intended, it reserves the harshest sentences for those convicted of serious or violent crimes. It is neither fair nor smart to waste precious resources sending people to prison for life for shoplifting.”

About two dozen states have similar laws, but only California counts any felony as a third strike, not just a serious or violent one.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine’s law school, was the attorney for Leandro Andrade, who was put away for 50 years to life after stealing videotapes from two differentKmart stores. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that a sentence of 50 years to life for shoplifting was cruel and unusual punishment; but the Supreme Court overturned that ruling on a 5-to-4 vote, concluding that Andrade’s sentence was not disproportionate because there was still the possibility of parole (though not until he’s 87).

A Field Poll last year found that 74 percent of voters favored modifying Three Strikes. See full text of the initiative at; see the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s take on it here.

Orange County RegisterTeri Sforza, Register staff writer