California’s “three strikes and you’re out” law has always been nuts, but with federal judges ordering the state to release prisoners in order to ameliorate dangerous and inhumane prison conditions it’s about to get truly insane.
The thing about imprisoning someone is that even though it’s a costly and brutal thing to do, it can bring real gains. A person in a prison cell is a person who’s not out on the street committing crimes. But how well this works has a lot to do with how likely the person you’ve incarcerated actually is to commit additional crimes. And this has a lot to do with age. Criminal behavior peaks in the early twenties and tapers off dramatically after thirty. Consequently, very long prison sentences, especially as applied to repeat offenders, are pretty wasteful. And if you’re facing a court order to reduce your incarceration head count, the sensible thing to do is to start letting older prisoners out. Some of them will probably offend again, but the majority will have “aged out” of serious criminal activity. And older criminals tend to engage in less-risky, less-violent crime that’s not as bad.
But thanks to “three strikes” California mostly can’t do this. Instead of letting out some of the vast number of mostly harmless offenders they have behind bars, they’re going to need to keep them locked up and instead cut loose people with fewer crimes on their record. This is going to be a younger and much more dangerous group and letting them out will lead to higher crime. And that, in turn, will increase demand on the state’s punitive apparatus but it’s not going to magically conjure up any new prison beds and lots of the ones they have will continue to be occupied by oldsters who don’t need to be behind bars.