Friday, January 6, 2012





When California voters begin thinking seriously next fall about the propositions they’ll vote up or down, one that's currently circulating might stand out as eminently sensible: Return the state’s three-strikes-and-you’re-out law to its original intent.

This not only makes sense, but it would save at least $100 million yearly that could then be spent on schools, police and fire protection, parks and day care for the infirm elderly.

Right now, more than 8,000 third-offense criminals sit in California prisons, each costing taxpayers more than $47,000 per year. They won’t be going anywhere in the current “re-alignment” that will eventually see 33,000 prisoners transferred to county jails or probation departments. The offenses that put about half of the three-strikes inmates into their cells were not violent.

Non-violent offenses have ranged from drug possession, thefts and check-kiting to the famous case of a shoplifter caught with cookies getting a 25-years-to-life sentence. One man with two prior non-violent felony offenses got the maximum three-strikes term for trying to break into a soup kitchen when he was broke and hungry.

It would be hard to quarrel with the original intent of the three-strikes law, which was spurred by the October 1993 murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by an ex-convict who entered her Petaluma home with a knife as she enjoyed a slumber party with friends.

The idea was sold as a way to keep repeat violent offenders off California streets, and it has done that. Crime rates today are significantly lower than before three-strikes.

But the law was never intended to put shoplifters and white collar criminals away for good. It would be hard for anyone even now, with the state constantly running in the red, to quarrel with the parts of the law that deal specifically with serious criminals. Three-strikes was first passed by the Legislature in March 1994 and then passed again by voters the following November.

Serious felons (including murderers, rapists, arsonists and those who use guns while committing any crime, among others) see the sentence for their second offense doubled and get 25-to-life for their third.

They account for about 4,000 of the just over 8,000 three-strikers now in prison.

It’s the other half that’s wasting a lot of tax dollars. District attorneys in each county have the power under the law to elevate any misdemeanor offense to a felony if a defendant has two prior felonies on his or her record. Some do this routinely, while others – most notably Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley – are reluctant to enhance the level of relatively minor offenses.

The annual expense for the 4,000-plus relatively minor offenders now doing elongated terms covers guards, housing, food and medical care.

These inmates are now held on the presumption held by many prosecutors that misdemeanors are often the precursors of major offenses committed later by the same perpetrators. But no credible academic study has ever supported this contention. Stanford University Prof. Michael Romano, founder of the Three Strikes Project that helps appeal cases of nonviolent offenders, claims only 4 percent of persons serving life terms for nonviolent third offenses are likely to commit violent crimes if released. That’s about one-fifth the rate of violent crimes committed by prisoners released from the general prison population.

In the meantime, California’s prison system has become what former Democratic state Sen. Tom Hayden warned in 1994 that it might eventually be: “The world’s largest system of geriatric treatment centers.”

That’s because there is no current provision for releasing prisoners when they become either too disabled or too old to commit violent crimes. (True, no one is ever too old to order or pay someone else to commit a violent crime. This reality also applies to other prison inmates, who sometimes control street gangs from within their cells.)

Only a very small portion of violent crime is committed or instigated by persons over 50.

All of which means the current often-indiscriminate handing down of 25-to-life sentences is both unnecessary to hold crime levels down and a waste of big money in many cases.

That’s why it makes sense to change the law and make only serious offenders liable to receive three-strikes sentences. This is what most voters originally thought they were backing and there’s little evidence that keeping matters as they are accomplishes much for anyone.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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