Prison overcrowding and rising healthcare costs push new ballot initiative

By Chris Levister –

While refusing to take an official position on reforming California’s Three Strikes and You’re Out law this week state Attorney General Kamala Harris opened the door.

Harris issued the title and summary (purpose and points) for the Three Strike Reform Act of 2012.

To earn a spot on the state’s 2012 ballot, sponsors of the initiative must collect 504,760 signatures by May 14, 2012.

If approved, the proposal will modify elements of California’s “Three Strikes” Law, approved by the state’s voters in 1994. In 2004, voters rejected Proposition 66, which like the 2012 measure was an attempt to change some aspects of the original “Three Strikes” Law.

The 2012 proposal, specifically, will if enacted:

• Revise the three strikes law to impose life sentence only when the new felony conviction is “serious or violent”.

• Authorize re-sentencing for offenders currently serving life sentences if their third strike conviction was not serious or violent and if the judge determines that the re-sentence does not pose unreasonable risk to public safety.

• Continue to impose a life sentence penalty if the third strike conviction was for “certain non-serious, non-violent sex or drug offenses or involved firearm possession”.

• Maintain the life sentence penalty for felons with “non-serious, non-violent third strike if prior convictions were for rape, murder, or child molestation.”

If the 2012 proposal is approved by voters, approximately 3,000 convicted felons who are currently serving life terms under the Three Strikes law, whose third strike conviction was for a non-violent crime, will be able to petition the court for a new, reduced sentence. Reducing the sentences of these current prisoners could result in saving the state somewhere between $150 to $200 million a year.

Altogether, about 8,800 prisoners are currently serving life terms in California prisons under the 1994 law. Twenty-four states have a “Three Strikes”-type law.

Barbara Ellis, Founder and Executive Director of FILO, Inc. (Families of Incarcerated Loved Ones), is “cautiously optimistic”.

“Changing the law is the right thing to do,” Ellis said. “People are going to jail for life for steal-ing pizzas and bottles of aspirin. This is not why voters approved the law.”

Ellis’ journey to reform Three Strikes began more than a decade ago when her brother was sentenced to 25 years to life for a third strike conviction on a charge that normally carries a 1-3 year sentence.

Ellis says she’s not surprised by the 2012 Reform Act.

“The operative word is inmate healthcare costs. California prison inmates are getting older and sicker,” said Ellis. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO).

• It costs an average of about $47,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate in prison in California.

• Over two-thirds of these costs are for security and inmate health care.

• Since 2000-01, the average annual cost has increased by about $19,500. This includes an increase of $8,300 for inmate health care and $7,100 for security.

“Thousands of inmates are fighting costly major illnesses including prostate and colon cancer, diabetes, liver and heart disease,” explained Ellis. “I’ve got mother’s calling me daily with horror stories about their daughters struggling with breast and cervical cancer. I hear about botched mastectomies, late cancer diagnosis, missed diagnosis and substandard medical care.”

According to state analysts spending on health care for state prisoners is nearly $500 million over budget this year which helps shed light on one of the darker corners of the state budget: corrections.

Last year, the state spent $500 million on outside hospital visits for inmates — about 25 percent of its total health care budget.

Ellis says this trend is troubling because every dollar the state spends on prisons means one less dollar to spend on education, health and human services, or other programs.

A federal judge put a receivership in place in 2006, after a court ruled California prisons were so over-crowded inmates did not have proper access to health care and mental health services — a violation of their constitutional rights.

Conditions in California’s overcrowded prisons are so bad that they violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the Supreme Court ruled in May 2011 ordering the state to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates.

The “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law was created by Mark Klaas in the aftermath of the 1993 kidnapping and murder of his 12- year-old daughter Polly Klaas.

The measure was advertised as a way to keep violent predators in prison. But the initiative passed by California voters was laden with unintended consequences – and cannot be changed in any significant way without another statewide vote. Klaas believes the nation’s toughest three strikes law works well.

“Three Strikes’ is where it should be,” he said. “Crime has gone down and none of the dire predictions about it have come true.” Klaas argues the mandated 25 years-to-life sentences for third time offenders keep repeat criminals off the street, and the threat of such a long sentence may stop two-time offenders from committing a third felony.

Earlier this year, a Field Poll asked California voters whether they would be willing to modify the Three Strikes law. Three quarters said yes. The survey was unconnected to the ballot measure, but it may indicate that voters are ready to reexamine decades of get-tough-on-crime laws, including California’s harshest.