Over 1,000 California inmates serving mandatory life sentences for non-violent, non-serious felonies under the state’s “Three Strikes Law” have been released since voter approval of Proposition 36 in 2012, according to a recent report by the Stanford Law School Three Strikes Project and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Known as the “Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012,” Proposition 36 is the first reform of the state’s three strikes law, amending the “Three Strikes Law” to require that the third strike must be for a violent, serious offense or crimes committed with a firearm. It also authorizes resentencing of any “third strikers” convicted of a crime that does not meet this revised criteria.
In order to qualify for resentencing, “third strikers” convicted of non-violent, non-serious offenses not involving the use of a firearm must petition before the courts in the county they were initially sentenced in. The district attorney must then review the petition and can contest suitability for release. If the latter occurs, a hearing must be held before the local Superior Court to address this challenge. If the review procedes, a judge is authorized to resentence and release inmates if it is determined that release would not pose “an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.”
According to the report, over 95% of the 1,092 processed petitions have been granted. Only 2% have been denied. Over 2,000 petitions are pending. The report presents four success stories, including the story of Curtis Penn, who received his third strike in 1998 for “shoplifting a pair of tennis shoes.” After serving 15 years in state prison, Penn was released in 2013 under Proposition 36. Now pursuing a college degree from San Francisco State University, he works as a landscaper and carpenter. Other stories include men sentenced to life terms for crack possession, possession of a stolen cell phone, and joyriding.
Thousands of California inmates have been sentenced to life terms for non-violent, non-serious offenses. In 2011, there were nearly 8,800 California inmates serving life sentences under “three strikes.” This included approximately 3,000 who became “third strikers” following convictions for non-violent, non-serious offenses who qualify for resentencing under Proposition 36. CDCR data from 2011 indicates that at least 1,350 California offenders were sentenced to life terms for drug offenses, including 682 for simple drug possession. As of June 30th, 2013, the total number of drug offenders serving life sentences dropped to 1,027. The number of California inmates serving life terms for simple drug possession dropped to 500. Undoubtedly, these reductions can attributed to Proposition 36.
What these numbers also mean is that hundreds of people have had to serve at least two years in overcrowded state prisons for drug possession while facing the prospect of spending the rest of their lives in prison.
To date, the recidivism rate for these offenders, many of whom spent years in prison for petty theft or drug offenses, is far below state and national averages. The 90-day recidivism rate for the average California inmate is 16%. By six months, this rises to 27%. Nationally, the average six month recidivism rate is an unacceptably high 30%. But for the released “third strikers,” out of prison for an average of 4.4 months, the recidivism rate is currently documents to be “less than 2%.”
The report also goes on to indicate that taxpayers have benefited as well. Thus far, Proposition 36 has saved the state prison system “between $10 and 13 million.” The report goes on to estimate that if the initiative is fully implemented by reducing the sentences of all qualifying inmates, “the State would realize almost $1 billion in savings over the next ten years.” This is in line with a legislative analysis prepared in advance of the November 2012 election that estimated “up to $90 million annually” could be saved for decades with the passage of the reforms.
Perhaps indicative of a deep-rooted problem, virtually all of California’s correctional reforms have either come through federal court order or by voter-driven ballot intiative. Since Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a “state of emergency” over the “overcrowding crisis” in 2006, California has struggled to operate a constitutionally acceptable prison system. In 2011, the US Supreme Court ordered California to dramatically reduce the prison population to 137.5% of design capacity. California’s correctional health care system is currently under federal oversight, as federal courts have consistently found that the state has failed to provide constitutionally adequate health care and mental health services. The latter two problems are said to be in part the consequence of overcrowding.
Based on the Stanford/NAACP report, it appears that not only will thousands of individuals be given an opportunity to reintegrate into society, but that thus far, they seem to be genuinely trying to do so. In addition, it seems that the reforms have the potential to yield significant savings. Naturally, whether or not California legislators will actually allow those “savings” to occur and not squander may be wishful thinking. Ultimately, though, the reforms ushered in by Proposition 36 are an important step in enabling the justice system to actually operate justly. Instead of locking up people for life for stealing tennis shoes or using crack cocaine, the reforms inject some common sense in an otherwise broken systen.