Ten months after Californians passed a ballot initiative to end a harsh sentencing scheme that imposed life sentences for offenses as minor as stealing socks, those released early have overwhelmingly stayed out of trouble, with just two percent charged with new offenses, most of which are misdemeanors or other minor offenses.
This recidivism rate for the 1,000 inmates released thus far is well below the average 16 percent rate at which individuals commit crimes within the first 90 days of release from California prisons, according to the report by Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project. While the reform is still in its infancy and no individual has been out of prison for more than nine months, the results thus far dispel warning cries that Proposition 36 would lead to a spike in crime, and provide statistical support for the growing sentiment that being “smart” rather than “tough” on crime by jailing less of the wrong people does not sacrifice public safety.
The law that existed before the November ballot initiative was thought to be the harshest of its kind in the country, and the relic of a bygone era in which groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council pushed similar three-strikes legislation around the country. It required judges to sentence third-time offenders who had committed two violent or serious felonies to 25-year-to-life convictions for any felony, regardless of its severity, and regardless of context and circumstance. Like mandatory minimum sentencing laws now in the spotlight for their impact on the soaring U.S. incarceration rate, the punitive law gave judges no discretion to decide when the required sentence had perverse results.
Among those released early who had previously faced life behind bars are men who had been sentenced for shoplifting a pair of tennis shoes, crack cocaine possession, and joyriding; and are now in counseling programs, gainfully employed, and going to school.
Those eligible for release must have committed a minor crime, such as petty theft or a drug conviction, and demonstrated to a judge they are not an “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.” Thus far, judges have found that the vast number of those eligible for early release under this change of the law deserved it, and have been released. Since November 2012, the law is estimated to have saved California between $10 and $13 million. If courts released all eligible inmates, it would yield savings of $1 billion over the next ten years.
At least 2,000 more inmates are eligible for release, and hearings for these inmates have been delayed in part because of a lack of resources, particularly for overworked public defenders. But Gov. Jerry Brown (D) should have incentive to facilitate fast hearings for each and every one of them, with a court order calling for the state to release 10,000 inmates by the end of the year over Brown’s objections. The report on the ballot initiative’s success came on the same day Brown announced his latest move to comply with this order — a compromise measure whose options include either seeking a time extension that courts have previously rejected, or contracting with out-of-state prisons to house its inmates.