Bill to Revise Three Strikes Law Passes the State Assembly

SACRAMENTO – The state Assembly has passed legislation that would ask voters to revise California’s Three Strikes law as a way to reduce prison sentences and save money.

The bill, AB327, was supported largely by Democrats and passed with the bare majority needed to send it to the Senate, 41-33. Democratic Assemblyman Mike Davis of Los Angeles failed to pass the bill Monday but was able to secure enough votes a day later.

“This bill is necessary because current three strikes law has led to many unjust sentences over the past 18 years that are not proportionate to the offense. As an advocate for fair and just society, this reality is quite troubling,” Davis said Monday.

Democratic supporters say the change is needed because many third-strike offenders have been sentenced for petty theft and less serious offenses. Debate is split largely along partisan lines, with Republicans saying the bill dilutes the intent of the 1994 voter-approved law, which was intended to punish repeat offenders.

“This is a grave issue,” said Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber. “Three strikes came to pass because repeat, unrehabilitated offenders were preying again and again and again upon our families, our children, the people of our community. And it has worked.”

Under California’s Three Strikes law, any third felony can earn a repeat offender a minimum sentence of 25 years in prison. Similar laws have been enacted in 26 states and the federal government has some variation of it, but none is more punitive than California’s because the third felony does not have to be labeled serious or violent.

California voters passed Proposition 184 back in 1994. Because it was enacted by voters, the Legislature may not amend the statute without voter approval.

Six previous legislative efforts to change the three strikes law have failed. In 2004, voters rejected Proposition 66, which would have required that the third strike be a serious or violent crime and could have reduced the number of offenses deemed serious under state law.

Proposition 66 failed 52.7 percent against and 47.3 percent for it.

There are about 144,000 inmates in the state’s prison system, including fire camps and out-of-state prisons. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, there are roughly 41,000 inmates serving time in state prison under the three strikes law. About 32,000 are second-time offenders and about 8,700 are on their third strike.

Davis said his legislation would help save the taxpayers money at a time when the state is trying to reduce its prison population and send lower-level criminals to county jails instead of state prisons. Defendants would not automatically face the stricter sentencing unless the defendant has certain prior offenses such as murder, rape and child molestation.

It would cost $220,000 to put the question before California voters but supporters say the bill would reduce inmate population by an estimated 60 inmates per year, resulting in $15 million in annual savings in 10 years. The savings would increase to $50 million in 20 years.

“These resources could be better spent by investing in education, rehabilitation and other meaningful economic development incentives of our state,” Davis said.

Assemblyman Donald Wagner, R-Irvine, said the bill is flawed because it would make the change retroactive and give inmates a chance to further clog the court system with appeals.

“As a society we have a right to say, `We’re tired of you and we’re going to deal with you harshly,”” Wagner said.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said the three strikes law has strayed from its original intent. Third strike offenders have been sentenced for “crimes against property,” drugs and other offenses, including drunken driving convictions.

“There are very egregious crimes on one side; there are non-violent, minor crimes on the other