Popular Fix of Three-Strikes Law Wouldn’t Save State from Missing Prison Overcrowding Deadline

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Proposition 36 on November’s ballot―which would revise California’s three-strike law to only apply to felonies that are serious or violent―is wildly popular, according to a recent California Business Roundtable survey.  

But even if the initiative passed (and 78% of those polled like it now), and all 4,000 prisoners affected were instantly released (they won’t be) the state still wouldn’t avoid what the Los Angeles Times says is inevitable failure at making court-ordered deadlines for reducing its prison population.

The state is under a deadline imposed by a federal appellate court two years ago to reduce its prison population so that it is only 137.5% overcrowded by June 2013, and is supposed to have a plan for the court by Friday to start releasing prisoners in case they can’t.

California has told the court it will ask for a 145% ceiling because it has done a good job improving health services for inmates, which was the impetus for court involvement in the first place. The state has floated the 145% proposal in the past and it has always been rejected by the courts.

Governor Jerry Brown had indicated in his April budget proposal that the state wasn’t planning on making its deadline and subsequently told the court of its lowered expectations. The court responded by issuing an order on August 3 that the state either get back on schedule or come up with a plan that would include freeing some prisoners.

California has shipped thousands of inmates from state prisons to county jails since October to comply with state legislation, but after a burst of activity in the first three months of “realignment” the pace has slowed considerably. At least 38,000 low-level felons have been diverted to local facilities or probation programs, reducing the prison population to fewer than 120,000. The state needs to get to 110,000 in a year, but the 4,000-a-month transfers have declined to around 1,000 and will almost certainly continue to diminish.

Prop. 36 would allow around 4,000 non-violent three-strike offenders to have their life sentences reviewed and possibly reduced. They represent 40% of all three-strike inmates and cost the state at least $140 million a year to house. The initiative’s passage would not only reduce the prison population, it would slow future growth.

California’s inhumane prison conditions have been documented for years―as has its continued  passage of tough criminal sentencing laws, building of expensive prisons, resistance to non-incarceration remedies and fending off of critics and courts―leading some to question the state’s sincerity of purpose.

As Don Specter at Prison Law Office, a nonprofit public-interest law firm, told the Los Angeles Times:  “I think they never intended to get to the court-ordered reduction.”  

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Unlikely to Meet Prison Crowding Reduction Requirement (by Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times)

Realignment Time: The Prison Crisis Comes Home (by Jonathan Simon, The Berkeley Blog)

Initiative Survey (California Business Roundtable)

Pass Prop 36 to Reform Three Strikes Law (San Jose Mercury editorials)

California Proposition 36, Changes in the "Three Strikes" Law (Ballotpedia)

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