Life-sentencing young offenders for petty crimes costs California taxpayers about $3m a time. Is that rational, let alone just?
On 6 November, Californians will get a chance to vote on Proposition 36, which would reform some elements of its highly controversial "three strikes" law and bring it in line with other states by closing a loophole that has allowed thousands of low level offenders to be locked up for life. As the law currently stands, anyone convicted of a third strike offense – something as minor as stealing a slice of pizza or possessing a joint of marijuana – will be sentenced to life in prison. Prop 36 would change that to ensure that only people convicted of a serious, or violent, third strike will feel the full force of the law.The measure enjoys the support of a broad coalition of conservatives and liberals, from Grover Norquist to Cory Booker, and from prosecutors to police chiefs. If the measure passes, as is expected, it will go some distance to undo some of the worst excesses of the three strikes law. Unfortunately, it doesn't go nearly far enough.
When the three strikes law went before voters in 1994 – then as Proposition 184 (pdf) – the measure was sold as a means of achieving the desirable goal of keeping repeat violent and dangerous felons behind bars for life. It was also meant to save the taxpayer "$23bn over five years". The law came about in response to the public outcry over the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a repeat felon. But even at the time, the law was met with strong opposition, including by the Klaas family itself, because of fears that the majority of people who would be convicted under the proposition would be non-violent offenders and because, as written, the law "treats non-violent crimes the same as murder, rape and armed robbery". Actually, it treats them worse.