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Now’s the Time to Ask About the Impact of ‘Three Strikes’ Law

I suppose most of us know about the law of unintended consequences, the unforeseen results of our decision-making.

In the mid-1990s, we wanted to put away habitual violent criminals, so we passed the so-called “Three Strikes” Law, which forced judges to sentence repeat offenders to mandatory prison terms.

The law, the result of a popular ballot proposition, was a success beyond our wildest imaginations. Today, the state’s holding 172,000 prisoners in facilities designed for 100,000.

We’ve been putting them away, and literally throwing away the keys.

In fact, we could say that housing prisoners has become one of our fastest-growing industries. So much so that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature want to build more prisons.

Nevertheless, two federal judges ruled last week that the governor’s proposal to build 53,000 new cells for a steady stream of newly arriving prisoners at the state and county level was too much too late.

They noted that the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is already struggling with a crisis of epic proportions (one of my favorite phrases), and adding tens of thousands of more cells would only add to the depth of the problem.

The judges ordered the creation of a special three-person panel to come up with ways to relieve overcrowding, which could mean the early release of some prisoners, which could, in turn, mean some pretty tough hombres would come spilling out of Folsom, Pelican Bay and San Quentin.


Cocktail Patter

The debate about overcrowded prisons is one of those topics that comes under the heading of “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.” With all of those bad guys (and gals) tightly tucked away, the issue just doesn’t come up much during social cocktail patter.

But it’s a serious , and costly , one. And it needs discussion.

The governor’s proposal to build more cells would cost $7.8 billion (which would probably double, if not triple, by the time those cells are built), and then there’s the added recurring costs of staffing those cells with guards plus other expenses, including skyrocketing health care costs.

The state can’t find enough qualified prison guards (and doctors) as it is, and guards now on duty belong to one of the toughest and most influential public employee unions in Sacramento.

They’ve become a self-perpetuating force in statewide political issues.

With the issue on the front page, now’s the time to ask hard questions about three strikes. We need to review the criminal justice system from top to bottom, or in the case of the criminals, from bottom to top.

Has justice been served? Have we been protected? Is there a better way? Let’s find out.

As an old sage once said, be careful of what you ask for, you might get it. There is always the issue of unintended consequences.

We’re getting those bad guys off the streets, but at what cost to our society and our economy?


Tom York is editor of the Business Journal.

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