More than 1,000 prisoners have been released since California voters approved in 2012 the reform of the state’s harsh three strikes law. Despite not being provided pre-and post-release services afforded other prisoners, the strikers have a lower recidivism rate than other released prisoners.
At the height of the political trend to “lock ‘em up and throw away the key, California adopted the harshest sentencing law in the nation. The 1994 “three strikes and you’re out” law resulted in thousands of life sentences for those convicted of petty crimes such as drug possession and pretty theft.
The law’s results seemed absurd when compared to many of the crimes. For instance, David Gomez was convicted in 1995 of joyriding. Curtis Penn in 1998 was convicted of stealing a pair of tennis shoes from a sporting goods store. Both received life sentences.
Reform of law that in a 2004 ballot initiative narrowly failed, but it raised public awareness of the harsh, unintended consequence of the three strikes law. In 2011, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF), in association with the Stanford Three Strikes Project, launched Proposition 36 to reform the law. Many prosecutors and police supported that reform, and voters passed Proposition 36 with 69% of the vote. It was the nation’s first voter initiative to shorten prison sentences.
Proposition 36 established procedures for prisoners sentenced to life for a non-serious or non-violent third strike crime to petition the sentencing court for release. A judge may grant release if it is determined it would not create “an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.”
As of September 2013, California processed 1,092 Proposition 36 petitions. Of those, 1,011 prisoners have been released from custody. Those released have had been out of custody a relatively short period of time (4.4 months) at the time the LDF and Stanford Three Strikes Project issued a progress report on Proposition 36. Nonetheless, the early results are heartening.
California has one of the nation’s highest rates of recidivism. Prisoners from the state are usually behind bars 16% of the time 90 days from release; 27% six months from release; 40% after one year. The national average is a bit higher with 44% after a year.
The strikers, however, have a 2.2% recidivism rate after 4.4 months. They have been successful despite being denied the critical reentry support available to other prisoners being released from California prisons.
Strikers “are not eligible for state and county services, leaving them without housing, jobs, or drug treatment,” states the progress report. “In many cases, prisoners freed under Proposition 36 are released from custody without warning, clothing, money for transportation, or notice to their families or attorneys.”
When he was released after serving 14 years for cocaine possession, Eddie Griffin possessed nothing more than a t-shirt and boxer shorts. “I had to ask the guard: ‘Man, I can’t go out there like this,” said Griffin. The guard gave him California’s standard prison release garb: a disposable plastic jumpsuit.
A “disproportionate number” of those released under the reform “suffer from mild to severe mental illness. They, too, are being released without state or county assistance. Thankfully, there are hundreds of private organizations trying to meet these prisoners’ needs by providing temporary housing, mental health services, sobriety maintenance, and job training at no cost.
California has a fiscal interest in strikers succeeding. It is a federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding by 9,600 prisoners. The progress report said the prison system has saved between $10 and $13 million since Proposition 36 took effect, and it will save almost $1 billion over the next 10 years.
There are more than 2,000 prisoners awaiting resolution of their Proposition 36 petitions. Most are delayed due to inadequate prosecutorial and public defender resources being devoted to resolution of those petitions. The report recommends more resources be poured into that effort and into assisting those to be released to help them successfully reintegrate into society. It also calls upon judges to apply the reform law consistently throughout the state.
The full report, Progress Report: Three Strikes Reform (Proposition 36), is available on PLN’s website.
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