Commentary

California Should Embrace More Sentencing Reform

It is possible for some nonviolent inmates to serve shorter sentences without compromising public safety

It’s been more than two years since voters passed Proposition 36, which prohibited individuals from being sentenced to life in prison for nonviolent offenses under the state’s notorious Three Strikes Law. Proposition 36 also allowed certain inmates who had already been sentenced to life in prison for nonviolent offenses under the old law to petition for resentencing.

While opponents of Proposition 36 – including Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas – feared the measure could endanger public safety, new data suggest inmates released under the law are not committing new crimes and lend support for additional sentencing reform in California.

Before Proposition 36 went into effect, California’s Three Strikes Law mandated that individuals convicted of any third felony offense be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for at least 25 years, even if the third offense was for something as minor as stealing a piece of pizza.

Since then, over 2,000 third-strike inmates have been released from prison, and 92 have been resentenced to shorter prison terms.

So what’s happened to these inmates since they’ve been released? Most have stayed out of trouble. Only 4.7 percent of the former three-strikers have been returned to prison for committing new crimes after being free for an average of 18 months.

By contrast, over 37 percent of all inmates released in 2010-2011 were returned to prison for committing new crimes within one year, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“You cannot find another group of prisoners who have been released from almost anywhere that have had such a low recidivism rate,” said Michael Romano, director of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School and co-author of Proposition 36. “I think it really does prove that these sentences were just not effective law enforcement policy.”

One reason for the low recidivism rates among former three-strikers is that judges have been able to evaluate their cases and determine if their releases would likely pose a threat to public safety. Another reason is that many of these inmates are older and have “aged out” of criminal behavior.

The fact that these former inmates have generally lived a crime-free lifestyle after being released signals that it is possible for California to reduce rates of incarceration without compromising public safety.

There’s still a lot of work to be done on this front. Despite enacting Realignment legislation in 2011, which required nonviolent, nonserious, and nonsex offenders to serve their sentences in county jails instead of state prisons, California’s prisons are still overcrowded. And taxpayers are paying roughly $47,000 per year per inmate to house thousands of people convicted of nonviolent crimes.

Many of California’s inmates have been sentenced under a provision of the Three Strikes Law which mandates that anyone convicted of any second felony offense (violent or nonviolent) receive twice the prison sentence they would receive if it were a first offense. They also have to serve their sentences in state prison, rather than a county jail. This aspect of the law remained untouched by Proposition 36. As a result, roughly half of all second-strike inmates are serving sentences for nonviolent offenses.

California counties have recently been sending a record number of second-strike offenders to prison. “Second-strike convictions had been generally declining since 1999. They began rising sharply about the same time as the realignment law took effect in October 2011,” the Associated Press found last year. “Partly as a result of the increase in second-strike offenders, the prison population of 133,000 inmates last June is projected to grow to 143,000 by June 2019.”

California should consider limiting the second-strike aspect of the law to only individuals who have committed violent offenses. Otherwise, California’s prison population will never be reduced or sustainable in the long-term.

Certainly, prolonged periods of incarceration are appropriate for violent offenders. But the success of Proposition 36 has shown that it is possible for some nonviolent inmates to serve shorter sentences without compromising public safety. It’s time for California to apply those lessons to nonviolent second-strike offenders.

Lauren Galik is director of criminal justice reform at Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared in The Press Enterprise.