The three strikes law, enacted in 1994, is working exactly as the Legislature and the people of the state of California intended.
The stated intent of the initiative was to “ensure longer prison sentences and greater punishment for those who commit a felony and have been previously convicted of serious and/or violent felony offenses.” Indeed, violent crime has declined by 17.6 percent and homicides by 30.9 percent from 2005 to 2010 alone. Overall, crime rates have steadily declined significantly since 1994.
Further, despite claims to the contrary, our prisons have not been overcrowded with third strikers. Out of a California prison population of 134,868, third-strikers serving life sentences comprise 8,873 individuals, or 6.6 percent of the total number of prisoners.
Of this population, 4,388, just under 3.5 percent, are serving life sentences where their third strike, or committing offense, was defined as “non-violent, non-serious.” Under Proposition 36, most of this population would be entitled to a resentencing hearing by a local judge leading to potential release with time served if not proven by the prosecution to still represent a danger to society.
This proposed initiative creates a “one size fits all” approach that takes all discretion away from prosecutors and judges where the current offense is considered “non-violent, non-serious,” despite the criminal history of the perpetrator, unless he/she has been convicted of murder, sexual assault, possession of a weapon of mass destruction or assaulting a police officer or fireman with a machine gun; in other words, pretty limited exceptions.
Under the initiative, someone who commits felony elder abuse or spousal abuse with a history of violent robberies, kidnapping, and/or residential burglaries would no longer be eligible for a life sentence. Further, someone with a similar past history currently serving life in prison would be eligible for a resentencing hearing.
This initiative is unnecessary due to the many safeguards already built into the law. In Napa County, as in many counties, the district attorney’s office does not pursue a life sentence under three strikes unless the district attorney, or senior members of his/her staff, have personally reviewed the case and agreed that such a sentence is warranted based on the individual’s past criminal history and current offense. If the local judge disagrees, he or she has the discretion to overrule our judgment and dismiss one or more priors so that it is no longer a life sentence. If they decline their discretion, appellate courts have the discretion to overrule both the DA and the judge.
The other major argument in favor of this initiative is it will save money if enacted. While financial considerations are important in our current budget times, they are not the only costs involved. Consider also the financial and personal cost of future crimes to victims and to law enforcement and the criminal justice system that could be prevented by keeping dangerous criminals in a place where they cannot harm us.
As a Jew, I believe in the concepts of forgiveness and atonement for one’s misdeeds. However, as a career elected prosecutor, I have the ultimate duty to protect my community from those who I believe have proven an inability to refrain from committing serious crimes. My late father encouraged me from a very young age to leave the world a better place than I found it. Protecting society from individuals who have committed multiple serious and violent felonies and who continue to harm our communities by their current actions is a core principal in accomplishing my father’s vision.
Proposition 36 is ill-conceived and unnecessary and I strongly urge you to vote no.
Gary Lieberstein has been a prosecutor in Napa County since 1985 and the elected district attorney since 1998. Lieberstein is a past president of the California District Attorneys Association and currently serves as a vice president of the National District Attorneys Association.