Californians split on three strikes law

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The Independent Online
BARBARA BROOKS is the sort of person who should approve of tough sentencing for criminals. She is a Christian from the Republican right who lives in California's Orange County, one of the most conservative areas in the country.

But a month ago her son was sentenced to 25 years in prison under California's "three-strikes" law, which hands down severe penalties for repeat offenders. Mrs Brooks's son, whose run-ins with the law have been due to drug addiction, will spend the next quarter-century behind bars because he ran away from a group of police officers while under the influence of amphetamines.

Five years after the passage of the three-strikes law, a growing chorus of ordinary citizens is questioning the justice and effectiveness of such tough sentencing.

Repeat-offender laws exist in roughly half of the nation's 50 states - but California introduced one of the first, and one of the toughest, after the 1992 Los Angeles riots and a crime wave largely linked to the post-Cold War economic recession.

In California the third offence, which triggers a minimum 25-year sentence without parole, can be as minor as stealing a slice of pizza. In one notorious case, the offender had shoplifted a bottle of vitamins.

Last week, Mrs Brooks was one of a crowd of protesters who marched in Orange County and elsewhere to demand a softening of "three strikes" to mark the law's fifth anniversary. A report published by a criminal justice think-tank in San Francisco also claimed there was no link between the law and a drop in violent crime.

The report said counties where "three strikes" is rigorously enforced - Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego in the bottom third of the state - have seen a slower drop in crime than counties where "three strikes" is applied occasionally or not at all.

The data contradicts the claims by the state's political leaders. Pete Wilson, California's Republican governor until the beginning of this year, and his Attorney General both said three strikes was crucial to the drop in violent crime.

Mr Wilson's successor, the Democrat Gray Davis, also backs three strikes - a position dictated by the tough-on-crime sensibilities of the Californian electorate.

State officials point out that the murder rate has fallen by 51 per cent over the past five years, and that fewer parolees who have committed violent crimes are coming into California. This suggests the three-strikes law deters career criminals.

Several studies, however, have shown that of the roughly 40,000 prisoners sentenced under three strikes, a disturbingly high proportion have a history of drug abuse, not violence.

James P Gray, an Orange County Superior Court judge, who joined this week's protests, said: "Every time a Congressman's child gets caught with drugs, they want treatment for him. Every time someone else's child gets caught, they want prison for them."

Some state legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, are keen at least to modify the law - to make sure the third offence is a really serious one before handing down irrevocable long sentences.