May 13, 2009

Three Strikes and You're Out -- Of Prison

California's "3 strikes" law (and many similar ones) often results in significantly increased prison sentences for multiple offenders. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the 3 strikes law arises when the third strike is a minor, non-violent crime, such as petty theft or drug possession.  If an individual is convicted of a misdemeanor such as these and has previously been convicted of two violent or serious felonies, the misdemeanor conviction may constitute a third strike that results in a sentence of 25 years to life.

Though supporters of 3 strikes law may disagree, it seems senseless and excessively costly to keep prisoners incarcerated for many years for committing petty offenses. Surely the money could be better spent on job training and drug treatment programs?

A clinical program at Stanford Law School has succeeded in having judges reduce some of the most egregious examples of overly harsh sentences.  But given the huge volume of criminal cases, we must trust to prosecutors to invoke the 3 strikes law and judges to hand down 3 strike sentences for non-violent offenses only when the circumstances leave them with no reasonable alternative.