NEW YORK (MainStreet) — A federal court ruled that the state of California must improve the health conditions of its convicted criminals. A three judge panel of federal judges said the prisons were overcrowded. As a result, Californians were sold on the idea of anti-incarceration groups of revising their three strikes laws because it was costing the state government too much money.
Did anybody worry about the cost - economic, emotional, and social - to the citizens of California of letting criminals out of prison early?
California filed numerous appeals of the judges ruling. The governor of the state, Jerry Brown, is certainly no law-and-order type. He appealed the order to the Supreme Court, because he feared the increased crime that would result. But the courts have rejected all appeals.
Furthermore, California passed Proposition 36 in 2012 which changes the three-strikes law. This law permits criminals serving life sentences for crimes that are not serious or violent to be sentenced again or released if a judge determines public safety is not jeopardized.
What are the results? Opinions vary among the experts. Some say it is an abysmal failure.
According to an article in the July 26, 2013 Sacramento Bee, crime is on the rise. The bold headline proclaims "California's crime rates inch up in 2012."
The Bee goes on to say, "The number of violent crimes and property crimes in California inched up between 2011 and 2012, according to a new analysis of crime data released by the Attorney General's office on Friday...The statewide rates of homicide, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault all ticked up in 2012 compared to 2011 levels. The same holds for the total numbers of burglary, automobile theft and larceny.Violent crimes increased by less than 3 percent from 2011, marking a rare instance of year-to-year violent crime rates jumping since the level of offenses began receding from its peak two decades ago."
Kent Scheidegger, the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (CJLF), a nonprofit public interest law organization, says the program is failing.
"California city crime is up in every category," he said. "Not only that, but California city crime increased more than the national figure in every category," noted Scheidegger. "Violent crime is up 2.9% compared to 1.2% nationally, but when we focus on the most violent crimes, we see murder up 10.5% versus 1.5% nationally and rape up 6.4% versus a 0.3% drop nationally."
He also says that the difference in property crime is even greater. Overall, California cities had a 9.7% increase versus a 0.8% drop nationally. He said that auto theft has increased dramatically. Scheidegger attributes this to California's realignment, because car stealing is not considered a serious offense is subject the realignment law.
"California cities had a staggering 15% increase in auto theft, while the nation as a whole had only a 1.3% increase," said Scheidegger. "The evidence continues to mount, confirming what persons of sense knew from the beginning. Realignment is a disaster."
Some say the program is performing adequately. Advocacy groups that championed the new law laud its success.
A report by the Three Strikes Project, an organization opposed to three-strikes laws, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (also a three strikes opponent), states, "...counties throughout California have been implementing the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012" ('Proposition 36'), which voters overwhelmingly approved in November. Proposition 36 shortens the sentences of prisoners who are serving life terms for non-serious, non-violent crimes and who no longer pose a threat to public safety. To date, over 1,000 prisoners have been released from custody under Proposition 36, according to data provided by the California Department of Corrections.
Others say it is a better alternative than having a court disqualify three strikes laws. One is Ronald Hunter, a criminal justice professor at Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, Fla. He believes Proposition 36 is an practical policy.
"Three strikes laws are meant to use our limited prison space to keep hardened career criminals and violent offenders in prison," said Hunter. "The California Three Strikes Law went beyond that to include a lot of petty criminals who can be dealt with through normal sentencing procedures. By addressing it themselves, the voters of California protected the intent and necessary application of their Three Strikes Law rather than risking the entire law being thrown out by California's liberal Supreme Court."
But Michael Rushford, the founder of the CJLF, said it is too early to tell. The Three Strikes Project - NAACP report, he says, is based upon the admittedly early data.
"It is apparent that Proposition 36 is accomplishing its proponents chief goal; the release of eligible third strikers, at a faster pace than many had expected," Rushford said. "There are legitimate questions regarding the reliability of the data on recidivism, just one year since the law's adoption. All of the 1,000 inmates the report cites as released over 2012, have not been out of prison for a full year. Most have probably been out less than six months. Many, and perhaps most, of the inmates released over the past twelve months are likely to have spent all of their post-release time in programs."
Rushford noted that because of this, released inmates may have engaged in criminal activity that has not been detected, or if detected, not reported to a state agency, as would be the case for a parolee.
"Even given the best of circumstances the recidivism rate for inmates, one year after their release, would not accurately reflect their propensity to re-offend," Rushford said. "A three-year recividism rate provides a far more reliable indicator. Anecdotal stories aside, any assessment of the effect of these releases on public safety, particularly in the law current enforcement environment created by Realignment, would be speculative."
But what is lacking from any commentary either by the media, advocacy groups or opponents is the cost of crime to the citizens. Crime has a tangible cost. As mentioned earlier, Californians were sold of changing the three-strikes laws, because they were told it was too expensive and federal judges were concerned about the well being of the imprisoned criminals.
Did anybody worry about the cost to the citizens of California and their well being? Judging from the early returns - apparently not.
--Written by Michael P. Tremoglie for MainStreet