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Three strikes is good criminal justice policy.

In California, violent crime has been decreasing faster than the national average. In fact, all crime in this state has been decreasing at a record pace over the past three years. When asked to explain why, most law enforcement officials, from the attorney general down to the cop on the beat, cite the state's tough "three strikes" law that was signed by Gov. Pete Wilson in March 1994.

This law, which imposes a 25-years-to-life sentence on anyone convicted of a third felony (violent or nonviolent), is working in California.

As of April 30, 1996, more than 1,600 three-time felons with serious or violent criminal histories, and nearly 16,700 two-time felons with similar backgrounds, have been taken off the streets because of this law.

A recent Sacramento Bee study of the two-year-old law found that 84 percent of the third strike inmates had been convicted at least once for a violent offense and an average of five felonies overall.

News reports and interviews with parolees indicate that criminals in California are getting the message. They are scared of committing a third strike, leading many of them to go straight or leave the state when they are paroled. It's hard to argue with this kind of success. But there are those who do.

Since the three strikes law went into effect, inmate rights advocates and defense attorneys have been warning us of explosive prison costs and overloaded courts, and predicting little benefits from this tough-on-crime law. They are wrong.

The National Institute of Justice recently released a report that estimated the national cost of crime at $450 billion a year. That's nearly $1,500 a year for every man, woman and child in this country. If California counts for even 10 percent of this figure with its 32 million residents, that means our state is losing $45 billion a year to crime.

Several studies conducted by such respected groups as the Rand Corporation, National Institute of Justice, Brookings Review, Council on Crime in America, Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy (PRI), and Governor's Office of Planning and Research have said that incarcerating career criminals is a sound investment for state government.

For example, PRI's report said, "Californians can look forward to a savings of $10 billion to $14 billion (a year), simply from incapacitating criminals" under the three strikes law.

Yes, prisons in the long term will cost more money to build and maintain. The administration is sponsoring a $2.5 billion bond measure for the November ballot to build six new prisons and expand county adult and juvenile facilities. However, the cost of not building and maintaining these prisons is far greater when you consider the extent of victimization.

Our facilities are getting more and more crowded and, as a result, we are going to need to build more prisons. But, the same voters who overwhelmingly supported our three strikes law will have the opportunity in November to support additional prison construction, and I believe they will do so in order to fulfill their mandate of three strikes.

Yes, the courts are getting crowded with three strikes cases. But, this wave of cases will pass as those criminals who were cycling through the system every couple of years, "doing life on the installment plan," no longer cycle through because they either have left the state, gone straight or are in prison. Several studies, which have shown that a very small minority of criminals (about 8 percent) commit a majority of all crime, support this projection because this 8 percent is the target of three strikes.

Although opponents of the law would have us believe that prisons are consuming every spare tax dollar, the facts paint a different picture. In August 1995, the California Taxpayers Association calculated that the taxpayer cost of incarcerating criminals in this state is about $23 a month for a family making $41,000 a year. This cost is far less than the average auto insurance policy in California.

There are some who say we're spending money on the wrong end of the equation and that we should be spending more on education in order to prevent crimes before they happen. I agree with at least part of that statement. Unquestionably, preventing a person from becoming a criminal is better than locking up that person after he has victimized someone.

However, we have to understand that we must deal with those individuals who continually fail to abide by societal rules. We must protect society from those predators who would just as soon murder your father, or assault your mother, as you or I would greet a stranger on the street.

Considering all the facts and costs, the three strikes law is a sound investment and good criminal justice practice.

Joseph Sandoval is secretary of the California Youth and Adult Correctional Agency.
COPYRIGHT 1996 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Annual Security Issue and Buyer's Guide July 1996
Author:Sandoval, Joseph
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Jul 1, 1996
Words:805
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