Cruel and Unusual Punishment is a fundamental right given to us by the United States (U.S.) Constitution. The 8th amendment states, ?Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted.? Last year in California voters approved a controversial ballot initiative. Proposition 184, also known as the three strikes and you’re out law, was passed on November 9, 1994. Under this new legislation repeat offenders, upon committing their third felony offense, will be sentenced to a mandatory twenty-five years to life in prison (California p. 667). California law states that (2) (A) If a defendant has two or more prior felony convictions as defined in subdivision (d) that have been pled and proved, the term for the current felony conviction shall be an indeterminate term of life imprisonment with a minimum term of the indeterminate sentence calculated as the greater of:
(i) Three times the term otherwise provided as punishment for each current felony conviction subsequent to the two or more prior felony convictions.
(ii) Imprisonment in the state prison for 25 years.
The initiative passed with 76% of the voters in favor of it. The State Senate soon after voted the bill into law, with only seven members voting against it. The three strikes initiative stemmed from the killing of Polly Klass by Richard Allen Davis, a convicted felon. The killing outraged the entire state but what enraged people even more was that Davis had been in and out of prison his whole life and was still free to kill again. Soon people began calling for laws that would put repeat violent offenders behind bars for life. The premise of the new laws became an easy issue for politicians to back. To oppose such legislation seemed to be political suicide, so most politicians backed the initiative. Although many civil liberties groups opposed such mandatory sentencing measures there was little they could in the face of tremendous voter approval. Many voters did not realize that this bill could put potentially incarcerate people for ludicrous amounts after the commission of a minor offense. Even more voters did not realize the cost of implementing such a bill. Now that this new legislation has been in effect for a year and the tremendous negative affects it have become obvious we must repeal it. One of the issues that must be considered when imposing mandatory sentencing is the increased cost of incarceration. In the state of California it costs $20,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate under normal circumstances (Cost 1). This amount of money could put one person through a state college for two or three years. According to Beth Carter the three strikes law has placed 1,300 people in prison for a third strike offense and 14,000 people in prison on a second strike offense. The current recidivism rate in California is 70%, which means that out of those 14,000 people that almost 10,000 will be back in prison for a third strike. To imprison those 1,300 third strike offenders for the mandatory minimum of twenty-five years will cost the state of California $812,500,000. To support these inmates for longer periods of time we will have to increase the amount of money going to our prison system. This means that either spending in other areas will be cut or an increase of taxes. Neither of which is highly favored by voters. On a national level the Justice Departments budget has increased an alarming 162% since 1987(Cost 2). Before the three strikes law was enacted it had been estimated that to keep up with the growing prison population on a national level that it was necessary to spend $100,000,000 per week on our prison system (Ogutu). Of these people that taxpayers are paying to imprison Mauer suggests that as many as 80% will be non-violent offenders. So far 80% of the second and third strike offenses have been for non-violent crimes, most of these being drug offenses (23). There have only been only 53 people with second and third strike convictions for rape, murder, and kidnapping (Carter 1). This law’s lack of effectiveness clearly does not warrant its huge price.
The other aspect to consider in the implementation of the three strikes legislation is its effect on non-violent offenders. These are the people hardest hit by this law. It is difficult see how society can justify sending a drug addict to prison for 25 years at a cost of $20,000 per year when the money could be used to fund drug rehabilitation centers and alternative programs for our youth. The three strikes legislation is directly aimed at violent crime, but its track record has shown that it has missed the mark by a long shot. Some offenders have been convicted for a third strike on relatively small offenses. For example, a man named Steven Gordon was convicted for his third strike after stealing a wallet that had $100 dollars in it. His previous offenses had all been non-violent, yet he was convicted under our three strikes law (Franklin 26). This is not an isolated incident either. Franklin cites numerous examples of cases where people were convicted under this legislation for non-violent offenses (26). These types of cases just illustrate how the three strikes legislation is targeting non-violent offenders, as opposed to its goal of targeting violent criminals.
After one year in effect it is easy to see what our three-strikes legislation has done. It has become easy to picture the long-term effects of such broad legislation on our society. Although this law was enacted by the will of the people, it has not carried out the will of the people. People wanted a law that would put dangerous repeat offenders behind bars for life. Instead we are now putting an increasingly large number of non-violent offenders behind bars for extended periods of time. It would be easy to justify the cost of removing a violent menace from our society, but justifying the cost of imprisoning people who are of no threat to anyone but themselves is difficult. We must look closely at what this legislation has done so far. It has placed many more non-violent offenders in prison than violent offenders.
For the reasons named above many people and legislation believe that the three strikes your out law is cruel and unusual punishment. In two recent decisions by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals the court ruled that the sentences imposed on 2 criminals amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The courts justification for this was the fact that the crime did not measure up to the sentence. The offenses did not justify to 25 years in prison for petty theft or non-violent crimes. After these two appeals, Loyola Law professor Laurie Levenson stated that, ?This is a big green light for challenging excessive sentences for minor offenses that are being sentenced under the three strikes law.? According to the California Bar, there are currently 340 people serving from 25 to life in prison for petty theft and have are being held unconstitutionally.
Under California?s three-strike law, a defendant faces 25 years (minimum) to life in prison after conviction of three felonies that qualify as ?strikes.? The first two strikes must be serious or violent felonies. The controversial portion of the law, however, centers on the third strike, which can be any felony as petty as theft. Any felony or offense that is charged and sentenced as a felony would qualify as a third strike.
Legislation is starting to change because many are complaining about the unjust sentencing for minor offences claiming cruel and unusual punishment. Democrat Jackie Goldbert, of Los Angeles, recently proposed new legislation that would require the third strike to be a serious or violent felony. Other organizations such as Citizens Against Violent Crimes (CAVC), would require that all strikes be violent felonies. The problem with this law is the fact that the applied sentences are disproportionate to the crimes. Circuit court Judge Joseph T. Sneed, argued that California?s citizens and legislators had mandated such a sentence and law. Judge Sneed said, ? Our deference should be at its apex, we have before us the clearest indication possible that severe, mandatory sentences for recidivist offenders is the expressed penal philosophy of the citizens of California.?
For the first time, a US appeals court has struck down a long sentence imposed under the law, saying it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling is already igniting debate over the merits of strict mandatory sentences. A federal appeals court nullified part of California?s three-strikes law in February 2002, ruling it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence people to life in prison for shoplifting. The ruling now overturns 340 sentences for California defendants serving life terms for shoplifting under the three-strikes law. As incarceration rates have risen, however, three-strikes laws have come under fire from civil rights groups, defense lawyers and even some prosecutors who argue that it is disproportionate to imprison people for decades for offenses that might have brought a brief jail term under different circumstances. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that it was cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a man to 50 years to life in prison when his third strike was stealing $153 worth of videotapes from a department store. This is the first time that any court has cited cruel and unusual punishment in finding that the application of the three-strikes law is unconstitutional.
Under our system of criminal justice, the punishment must fit the crime. Individuals should not be executed for burglarizing a house nor incarcerated for life for committing relatively minor offenses, even when they commit several of them. This principle, known as “proportionality,” is expressed in the Eighth Amendment to the Bill of Rights: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Many of the “3 Strikes” proposals depart sharply from the proportionality rule by failing to take into consideration the gravity of the offense. Several California proposals provide that the first two felonies must be “violent,” but that the third offense can be any felony, even a non-violent crime like petty theft. Such laws offend our constitutional traditions.
A new study conducted by the Sentencing Project has found that California’s three-strikes law, which requires that a person convicted of any three felonies be sentenced to 25 years to life, finds that the legislation has had no significant effect on declining crime rates. According to author Marc Mauer, “Crime had been declining for several years prior to the enactment of the three-strikes law, and what’s happening in California is very consistent with what’s been happening nationally, including in states with no three- strikes law.” California’s three-strikes law has been criticized for impacting mostly non-violent drug offenders since its passage in 1994 and for cruel and unusual sentences
While the three Strikes law was passed by 71 percent of California voters, a recent survey has indicated Californians are unclear on the scope of the law. Though 93 percent of those surveyed agreed people convicted of three violent or serious felonies should be sentenced to 25-years-to-life, only 65 percent of those surveyed believed that a person convicted of three serious drug crimes should receive a life sentence. Narrowing it down further, 47 percent concurred that a person who commits three serious property crimes should be given a life sentence and only 13 percent agreed that a person convicted of three “less serious” property crimes should receive a life sentence. What these statistics are telling us, is basically the California citizens don?t really know what they voted for. They voted for a law that sounded good and now many citizens believe they didn?t make the right choice. Nobody ever thought that 25 years to life in prison was cruel and unusual punishment for shoplifting. Nobody ever thought that these convictions would serve small felonies or petty offenses. The point of this law was to punish serious crimes not petty ones. Now many people regret implementing this law and must suffer the consequences.
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