'3 strikes' law swamps courts, jails in Calif.

January 10, 1995|By Knight-Ridder News Service

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- In less than a year, California's highly touted "three strikes, you're out" law has swamped courts and jails with mostly nonviolent offenders, is allowing some minor criminals to escape prison or prosecution completely, and has jailers turning convicts loose to make room for people awaiting trial, according to a study released last week.

All of those problems had been predicted by critics before the legislature approved the popular measure in March, but those concerns were largely ignored.

The study, by the Legislative Analyst's Office, is the first comprehensive look at the effects of the law, which substantially increases prison sentences for repeat felons.

The analyst's office, a nonpartisan group of experts that advises lawmakers on the impact of state policies, determined that most of those facing long prison terms for second- and third-strike offenses were arrested for "nonviolent and nonserious offenses." At the end of November, the study found, 2,912 people were in state prison for conviction on a second-strike offense. Of those, 944 were serving long terms for drug possession and petty theft. Only 17 percent had been convicted of violent or serious crimes.

The most striking result of the new law is the near disappearance of plea-bargaining by former prisoners facing second- and third-strike convictions. Though plea-bargaining is widely derided by law-and-order politicians as a form of criminal coddling, it has allowed overwhelmed prosecutors to concentrate on serious or complex crimes and to quickly dispose of routine felony cases.

Before "three strikes," about 94 percent of all felony cases in California were settled by a plea bargain. Now, just 6 percent of third-strike cases and 14 percent of second-strike cases are being plea-bargained. The rest are going to trial.

The effect is far-reaching. According to the study:

* Trial court costs are ballooning in counties that have traditionally used plea-bargaining as a way to hold down the expense of their criminal justice systems.

* Already crowded county jails are becoming overloaded with suspects awaiting trial on second- and third-strike charges, forcing some counties to put convicts back on the streets early, or to refuse to accept new ones.

* Lesser criminals are avoiding prosecution altogether as overwhelmed prosecutors focus on "three strikes" cases, and civil cases are experiencing long delays as criminal dockets consume court time.

And there is no evidence that crime has been reduced because of the "three strikes" law, the study said. The state's crime rate had been falling before enactment of the law.

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