The three-strikes law, first enacted in 1994, is working exactly as the Legislature and the people of the state of California intended.
The stated intent was to “ensure longer prison sentences and greater punishment for those who commit a felony and have been previously convicted of serious and/or violent felony offenses.”
Violent crime has declined by 17.6 percent and homicides by 30.9 percent in the time period from 2005-2010 alone. Overall, crime rates have steadily declined significantly since 1994.
Despite claims to the contrary, our prisons have not been overcrowded with third-strikers. Today, out of a current prison population of 134,868, third-strikers serving life sentences comprise of 8,873 individuals or 6.6 percent of the overall total.
Of this population, 4,388 or just under 3.5 percent, are serving life sentences where their third strike, or committing offense, was defined as “non-violent, non-serious.”
Most of this population will be entitled to a resentencing hearing by a local judge, where they could potentially be released with time served, if not proven by the prosecution to still represent a danger to society.
This proposed initiative creates a “one size fits all” approach that takes all discretion away from prosecutors and judges in the future, where the current offense is considered “non-violent, non-serious” despite the criminal history of the perpetrator — unless he/she has been convicted of murder, sexual assault, possession of a weapon of mass destruction or assaulting a police officer or fireman with a machine gun.
In other words, pretty limited exceptions.
Under the initiative and the new law, if passed, someone who commits felony elder abuse or spousal abuse with a history of violent robberies, kidnapping and/or residential burglaries, would no longer be eligible for a life sentence.
Further, someone with a similar past history currently serving life in prison would be eligible for a resentencing hearing.
The reason this initiative is so unnecessary is due to the many safeguards already built into the law. In Napa County, the district attorney’s office does not pursue a life sentence under the three-strikes law, unless I have personally reviewed the case and agreed that such a sentence is warranted based on the individual’s past criminal history and current offense.
If the local judge disagrees, he or she has the discretion to overrule my judgment and dismiss one or more priors, so that it is no longer a life sentence. If they decline their discretion, appellate courts have the discretion to overrule both the district attorney and the Judge.
The other major argument in favor of this initiative is that we will save money if it is enacted. While financial considerations are important in our current budget times, they are not the only costs involved.
Consider both the financial and personal cost of future crimes to victims and to law enforcement and the criminal justice system that could be prevented by keeping dangerous criminals in a place where they cannot harm us.
As your district attorney, entrusted in maintaining the safety of our community, I strongly urge you to vote “no” on Proposition 36.
Liberstein is the Napa County district attorney.