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The injustice of "three strikes"

By Phil Gasper | March 12, 2004 | Page 2

CALIFORNIA'S "THREE strikes" law--which requires a 25-years-to-life sentence without the possibility of parole for anyone with two felonies convicted of a third--is unfair, racist, massively expensive and ineffective. That's the conclusion of a new report from the Justice Policy Institute.

Forty-two thousand people--a quarter of California's prison population--are currently serving life terms under the law at a cost of $8.1 billion to the state. Yet the majority of third strikes--57 percent--are for nonviolent crimes. More than 350 people have been given life terms for petty theft, and more third-strike inmates are doing time for drug offenses than for second-degree murder, rape and assault combined.

The law is also racist. The African-American incarceration rate for third strikes is 12 times higher than for whites, and the Latino incarceration rate for a third strike is 45 percent higher than for whites. Meanwhile, the three strikes frenzy has done nothing to reduce crime.

The study found that California counties that used the three strikes law least frequently actually saw a decline in violent crime that was 22.5 percent greater than counties using the law most frequently. This mirrors the pattern for the whole country. States without "three strikes" laws have experienced a significantly bigger drop in violent crime than California, which has been shifting money from education and social programs to prisons for years.

"We're filling our prisons with people who don't belong there," said state Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg. "You can get less time for second-degree murder than for stealing a six-pack of beer. It's not what the public had in mind."

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