Panel Advises Ending Life-Without-Parole, ‘3 Strikes’ Sentences
12/17/2021—The Committee on Revision of the Penal Code says tough sentencing laws have done little for public safety while driving up California’s prison population. California’s groundbreaking “three strikes” law and the state’s life-without-parole sentences for thousands of convicted murderers have done little for public safety while driving up the prison population — particularly people of color — as well as taxpayer costs, according to a panel established to review state criminal laws. In a year-end report, the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code recommends repealing, or at least substantially limiting, the three-strikes law that voters approved in 1994, which required sentences of 25 years to life for anyone convicted of a third felony after two serious or violent felonies. The law doubled prison terms for “second-strikers,” those with a past serious or violent felony who were convicted of any new felony. The committee also proposed making the more than 5,000 current life-without-parole inmates eligible for parole consideration after 25 years in prison, and allowing other convicted felons to receive parole consideration after completing the sentence for their most recent crime, without additions for past convictions or gang membership. That would expand parole eligibility under a 2016 ballot measure, Proposition 57, which applied only to inmates sentenced for nonviolent felonies.
Eliminating the life-sentence mandate for third-strikers “would recognize the law’s failure to make California safer, and would be a significant step towards reducing racial disparities in our criminal legal system,” said the committee, whose members include five appointees of Gov. Gavin Newsom and two legislators. It was established by lawmakers last year to study California’s criminal laws and recommend changes. More than 33,000 inmates — over a third of California’s prison population — are serving longer sentences because of the three-strikes law, and the most recent crime for more than 7,400 of them was neither serious nor violent, the report said. Among third-strikers serving potential life sentences, the report said, 45% are Black. California voters limited the three-strikes law in 2012 by passing Prop. 36, which allowed third-strike life terms only for felonies classified as serious or violent. But the committee acknowledged that a complete repeal of three strikes, a law endorsed by nearly 72% of the voters in 1994, “would be a difficult goal.”
It recommended some interim measures to the Legislature — for example, counting past felony convictions as strikes only if they occurred less than five years before the latest conviction, and no longer considering prior juvenile convictions to be strikes requiring increased sentences for adult crimes. “Many of these people didn’t have a violent crime — maybe forging a check, or drug use years back,” Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, a member of the committee, said in an interview. Even if the public still supports severe penalties, she said, “it’s important to have this conversation so we can see, has our thinking changed? ... If we can see this didn’t work as intended, we have the right to change it.”
A different view came from Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys in Los Angeles County. She testified before the committee but said Wednesday that the project was a “complete farce.” “They’re trying to change the laws that the voters enacted ... making the worst-of-the-worst murderers eligible for parole,” Hanisee said. Even if some aging inmates pose relatively little danger if released, she said, “aren’t there some crimes that are unforgivable?”
But the committee said California’s punitive laws have not accomplished their stated goals. The state’s prisons remain overcrowded, and numerous studies have shown that imprisonment and severe sentencing have no more effect on crime than granting probation, the report said. Life without parole was approved by the voters in 1978 as an alternative to the death sentence for specific categories of murders, such as killings during a rape or robbery, multiple murders or the murder of a police officer, and another ballot measure in 1990 eliminated judges’ authority to grant parole eligibility. Nearly 80% of inmates serving such sentences in California are nonwhite, the report said, and there is no evidence that making all such prisoners ineligible for parole enhances public safety. On other issues, the committee said: Expanding Prop. 57 to make all prisoners eligible for parole hearings after serving their primary sentences would affect 42,000 inmates. And studies show that 49% of inmates paroled after sentences for crimes not considered serious or violent — but only 29% of parolees whose earlier crimes were violent — are convicted of new crimes within three years of their release. More than 30,000 California prisoners, and more than half of all women in prison, are receiving mental health treatment, costing the prison system $800 million a year. They should be in mental facilities instead of prisons, the report said. Those convicted of nonviolent crimes should not be imprisoned unless locking them up is necessary to prevent physical injury to others, or “failing to impose incarceration would depreciate the seriousness of the offense.”
In a statement Thursday, Newsom’s office said, “The Governor appreciates the committee’s hard work on the report and is currently reviewing its recommendations on how to update California’s Penal Code.” –sfchronicle.com (Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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