A group of four Cal State Fullerton instructors sat down with students at the Titan Student Union Tuesday for a panel discussion to share their insights into the controversial changes to California’s “three strikes” law proposed in Proposition 36.
California’s three strikes law, enacted in 1994, allows for criminals to be sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison on their third felony conviction, provided they have two previous convictions for serious or violent offenses.
If passed by the voters Tuesday, Proposition 36 would mandate that a third strike offense not only be a felony, but a serious or violent one. It would also allow more than 3,000 prisoners already sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison as third-strike offenders for crimes not deemed serious or violent to petition a judge to reduce their sentences.
Under the proposed legislation, those previously convicted of murder, rape or child molestation would continue to receive 25-year-to-life sentences, even if their third strike conviction is for a felony not deemed serious or violent.
“California’s three-strikes law is the toughest in the nation,” said Pamela Fiber-Ostrow, Ph.D., associate professor of political science. “We’re the only state that has the option for of a third strike for a non-serious or nonviolent offense.”
She pointed to examples such as Leandro Andrade, who was sentenced to two 25-year-to-life sentences for two convictions for shoplifting videotapes in 1995. He had previously been convicted twice of burglary in the early 1980s.
But CSUF criminal justice lecturer and Orange County prosecutor Gary LoGalbo said that such cases are few, and that Proposition 36 would take important discretion away from judges charged with protecting society from dangerous criminals.
While there exists several examples of judges sentencing convicts to 25-year to life sentences for seemingly minor crimes as third-strike offenders, “In my experience, they don’t,” said LoGalbo.
Only 8 percent of those charges as third strike offenders end up being convicted and sentenced as such, due to the discretion of judges and prosecutors who are already “finding the appropriate balance,” he said.
And when dealing with the 3,600 third-strike offenders already sentenced to potential life terms for nonviolent or non-serious felonies under current three strikes legislation, “You can’t look at it in a vacuum,” LoGalbo said. “You have to see what was their prior criminal history.”
It’s not just the offense that triggered the third strike that is being punished, he added. “What we’re punishing with this law is the recidivism of a person that doesn’t reform.”
Kevin Meehan, Ph.D., associate professor of criminal justice, said he supports the idea behind California’s three strikes law and voted for it in 1994, but the current legislation needs modifying to better serve the public good.
The three strikes law was enacted to lock up society’s worst offenders, “(But) we throw this huge net to include all felonies,” said Meehan. As it stands, he argued that California’s three strikes law works against “proportionality” in the just system—the notion that “the sentence should fit the crime.”
Criminal justice professor George Dery, Ph.D., agreed with the other pro-Proposition 36 panelists that Proposition 36, as we see it today, is harsher than what was intended by the voters. “It was, in a sense, a Draconian law,” he said.
Meehan cited the large number of third strike convicts serving time in California prisons as evidence the law goes too far. Of the 120,00 or so inmates expected to make up California’s prison population in 2013, about a third of them will be serving sentences under second or third strike convictions.
Proposition 36 is expected to save the state as much as hundreds of millions of dollars in prison costs.
With the current economic climate, “You want to consider this from a financial standpoint,” Meehan said.
LoGalbo said he was not convinced the monetary savings associated with the proposition would be as significant as proponents have claimed.
“Financially, I’m not sure how big the impact will be, with the numbers (of affected individuals) so small,” he said.
And the issue to be considered regarding this proposition is public safety, LoGalbo said. “Who wants to tell a victim, ‘Sorry, you had to (be victimized) before we could take him off the street?’”
Fiber-Ostrow countered that Proposition 36 would not result in the automatic release of anyone previously sentenced as a third striker, but rather make them eligible to seek a hearing with a judge to ask for a reduced sentence.
“It doesn’t mean we’re going to open the floodgates and let them all out,” she said. “There would still be a judicial process.”
Regardless of political leanings, panelists on both sides said voters should educate themselves on the issue and make an informed decision on election day.
After thanking the panelists for their participation in the event, Alpha Phi Sigma Criminal Justice Honor Society and Criminal Justice Student Association president Jacob Gomez asked the audience to give the issue serious thought before heading out to vote.
“Please take everything they say seriously, and take it to the polls,” he said.
Tuesday’s panel was sponsored by the Alpha Phi Sigma Criminal Justice Honor Society and the Criminal Justice Society.