The U.S is number one in the world for incarcerating people. It costs the U.S. over $80 billion a year to keep two million or so Americans in jail. Over the past three decades tougher sentencing laws have led to a doubling of the prison population. Many states, including California, have what are known as "three strikes and you're out"
laws that mandate life sentences for a wide range of offenses.
California was one of the first states to enact this type of law in 1994. Since enacted, more than 9,000 have been convicted under the terms of the law. The law can lead to people with only three minor offences on their record to be sentenced to life.
For example, Norman Williams' third strike was stealing a jack from a tow truck. His first offense was burglarising an empty house and his second stealing tools from an art studio. Williams was sent to a maximum security prison where there were murderers, rapists, and other violent offenders. Williams was a crack addict.
After 13 years in jail, Williams' case was reviewed by a judge and he was released. He is one of the lucky ones, if you can call serving thirteen years for these offences lucky. Williams is one of about two dozen "three strikers" who won sentence reductions through the work of the Stanford University law clinic. Michael Romano, the founder of the clinic, thought up the idea of the ballot initiative to reform the law. Romano
"When people originally passed the three-strikes law in 1994 the campaigns were about keeping serious and violent murderers, child molesters in prison for the rest of their lives. I think that's what people want and are kind of shocked to hear that people have been sentenced to life for petty theft."
Proposition 36 would amend California law so that only if the third strike was a serious or violent crime would the life sentence follow. The current law does allow appeal if the last conviction was not serious but the law could still apply if an earlier strike was serious or included violence. If the proposition passes, this may indicate changes will happen in other jurisdictions as well.
Opponents of the initiative argue that the law has worked well in that it has contributed to a dramatic fall in violent crime over the last twenty years. However, statistics show that there are also sharp declines in violent crimes in states without such laws!
head of the California District Attorney's Association said:
"We want to remove the worst offenders from society for the sake of our communities. And we want to do it no matter what it costs and we want to do it no matter what the impact on the prison population."
However, California has been ordered
by the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce its prison population and at the same time faces a huge deficit problem.
The Center for Investigative Reporting together with the San Francisco Chronicle did a study that found that those convicted under the "three strikes" law were not more violence prone than the general inmate population. However, they were more likely to have drug or substance abuse problems. This suggests that there should be more programs to deal with these problems.
Those supporting Proposition 36 are focusing their message on lessening the burden to taxpayers. Several district attorneys appear in an ad endorsing Proposition 36: "Save millions of dollars, instead of wasting millions on non-violent offenders." The proposition has gained support even from some conservatives such as Grover Norquist and Pat Nolan.
Even if the bill passes it will not have a huge effect on the numbers in California prisons but it might signal a change in attitude towards somewhat more lenient sentencing. However, any such moves will meet with well-funded resistance from groups such as prison guards, and the promoters of private for-profit prisons. An Al Jazeera video on the issue can be found here.