January 9, 1995 in Nation/World

‘Three Strikes’ Law Punishing Courts, Jails Comprehensive Study Says Measure Backfiring


In less than a year, California’s highly touted “three strikes, you’re out” law has swamped courts and jails with mostly non-violent offenders, is allowing some minor criminals to escape prison or prosecution completely and has jailers turning convicts loose to make room for people awaiting trial, according to a new study.

All of those problems had been predicted by critics before the Legislature approved the popular measure last March in a crime-fighting frenzy, but those concerns largely were ignored. Washington state voters approved a nearly identical measure in 1993.

The study, by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, is the first comprehensive look at the effects of the law, which substantially increases prison sentences for repeat felons. It buttresses predictions made in a 1994 Santa Clara County study which said that “three strikes” would result in “a crisis in the administration of justice in Santa Clara County and elsewhere in the state.”

The analyst’s office, a non-partisan group of experts who advise lawmakers on the impacts of state policies, determined that most of those facing long prison terms for second- and third-strike offenses had been arrested for “non-violent and non-serious offenses.”

At the end of November 1994, the study found, there were 2,912 people in state prison for conviction of a second-strike offense. Of those, 944 were serving long terms for drug possession and petty theft. Only 17 percent had been convicted of violent or serious crimes.

The most dramatic result of the new law is the almost total disappearance of plea bargaining by ex-cons facing second- and third-strike convictions. Though plea bargaining widely is derided by law-and-order politicians as a form of criminal coddling, it has allowed overwhelmed district attorney’s offices to concentrate on serious or complex crimes and quickly dispose of routine felony cases.

Before the “three strikes” law, about 94 percent of all felony cases in California were settled by plea bargaining, according to the study. Now, however, just 6 percent of third-strike cases and 14 percent of second-strike cases are being plea-bargained; the rest are going to trial.

“Public defenders and criminal defense attorneys appear to be advising their clients that there is little to lose by refusing to plea-bargain and taking their cases to trial, given the much longer prison sentences defendants face if convicted,” said the study, released last Friday.

The effect of that is far-reaching. According to the study:

Trial court costs are ballooning in counties that have used plea bargaining as a way to hold down the expense of their criminal justice systems. In Los Angeles, the county district attorney estimates the number of criminal trials there will soar 144 percent this year.

Crowded county jails are becoming overloaded with people awaiting trial on second- and third-strike charges, which is forcing some counties to put convicted criminals back on the streets early or forcing them to refuse to accept new convicts. “The San Bernardino County jail no longer accepts offenders being booked for misdemeanors because of the growth of its ‘three strikes’ pre-sentenced population,” the study noted.

Lesser criminals are avoiding prosecution altogether as overwhelmed prosecutors focus on “three strikes” cases, and civil cases are experiencing long delays as criminal dockets consume more and more court time.

The Santa Clara County study, which was done for the board of supervisors in August by the Center for Urban Analysis, predicted that “three strikes” would make the courts “virtually unavailable to civil litigants. This could produce an environment in which consumer fraud and other illegal business practices cannot be restrained.”

Despite all this, there is no evidence available that crime has been reduced because of the “three strikes” law, the study said.

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