Panel takes aim at California’s LWOP, Three Strikes Law
A state commission is recommending ambitious changes to California’s criminal justice system, including revisions to the Three Strikes Law and life-without-parole sentences, and ending capital punishment.
The seven-member panel of lawmakers, former judges and criminal justice experts has been laboring under the task of unraveling California’s convoluted crime laws and recommending policy changes that would help lower the state’s high incarceration rate.
Criminal laws in California are far too complex, said Stanford Law School lecturer Michael Romano, who is also chairman of the state Committee on Revision of the Penal Code.
“The penal code is like a phone book,” Romano said. “It’s so thick and so dense and complicated. I don’t think people understand it very well, in the system and out of the system.”
The commission’s recommendations are intended to “significantly reduce unnecessary incarceration for thousands of Californians, reduce racial disparities in criminal sentencing, and save taxpayer dollars better spent on programs proven to improve public safety,” the Los Angeles Times reported Dec. 31, 2021.
In 2021 alone, 10 of the recommendations resulted in a half-dozen new laws, including limits on the use of gang-related sentence enhancements and an end to mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.
The panel’s second Annual Report to state lawmakers was submitted in December and includes significant suggestions for 2022 that would reduce crime by placing greater focus on rehabilitative efforts, prison diversion programs, and mental health treatment.
Changes to the Three Strikes Law are among the CRPC’s proposals. According to the commission’s latest study, 80% of the more than 33,000 people serving Three Strikes sentences in California for a third strike are people of color.
As a partial remedy, the panel recommends excluding juvenile offenses and any offense more than five years old from being used as a strike, the article said. The report also suggests eliminating doubled-up sentences for a prior conviction when the current offense is neither serious nor violent.
In addition, the commission proposed phasing-out life-without-parole sentences and gives the parole board the power to consider release of a prisoner after the individual has served 25 years. It also suggests giving the parole board power to recommend clemency in some circumstances.
“Three strikes, life-without-parole, those would both need to be reformed by votes of the people through ballot measure, which we don’t envision anytime soon,” Romano commented.
Many in the law enforcement community have already criticized the commission as being too one-sided.
“They don’t really have a balanced group, it seems,” said Michele Hanisee, who heads Los Angeles County’s Association of Deputy District Attorneys. “They’re in lockstep with what they want to accomplish, which is across-the-board reduction in incarceration without necessarily a reasonable consideration of victims’ rights and the seriousness of some of these offenses.”
California’s recent spate of smash-and-grab robberies, as well as a 31% increase in the state’s homicide rate, has fueled criticism of Democrats’ criminal justice reform efforts. Gov. Gavin Newsom was assailed as soft on crime in last year’s failed Republican recall effort, and San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin will face the same fight this June.
State Sen. Sydney Kamlager, D-Los Angeles, a former commission member, hopes a more rational approach to criminal justice reform will override the knee-jerk instinct to punish offenders.
“All we need are these anecdotal stories to scuttle really thoughtful approaches to reforms because we just err on the side of really wanting to be punitive to make a point,” Kamlager said.
Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, a current commission member, agrees.
“Public safety has to be paramount, but responding just to sensational crimes … does not necessarily reduce crime,” she said.
“California has led the nation in criminal justice reform,” said Romano. “Election after election, there have been reforms to reduce punishment and provide more opportunities for people to get out of jail and prison. At the same time, our crime rates have dropped.”
California Department of Justice figures reflect a nearly 14% drop in robberies in 2020, and more than an 8% drop in the rape rate. Total arrests in the state dropped by 17.5%. Violent crime in 2020 did increase, though that figure was less than 1%.