Forgotten Majority

Advocating for the just and humane treatment of those who are incarcerated.


By Peter Henderson
Updated 10/13/2012 1:56:48 PM ET

SAN FRANCISCO — More than a decade after California set a national trend toward longer sentences for habitual criminals with its three-strikes law, crime in the Golden State is down, prison costs are up and voters are poised to soften the hardline stance.

A California ballot measure that would let some nonviolent offenders out of jail faster is the most high-profile example of what Adam Gelb, a criminal justice expert at the Pew Center, calls “a sea change across the country in attitudes on crime and punishment.”  The campaign to pass the measure has drawn support from religious conservatives, fiscal hawks and a broad array of constituencies who have supported “tough on crime” policies in the past.

California isn’t the first state to revisit policies that have caused an explosion in inmate populations and in some cases jailed people for many decades over relatively minor infractions. In 2007, Texas faced more than $2 billion in new prison costs and chose instead to plow $240 million into alternatives such as treatment-oriented programs for nonviolent offenders.

In Delaware, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and New York, mandatory sentencing laws have been rolled back. Other states are revising parole standards and adding programs to let prisoners earn early release, according to a recent Pew study.  And a September 2012 study by the Council of State Governments found seven states were succeeding in cutting recidivism rates, by 6 percent to 18 percent, often by focusing on non-prison programs and treatment. Filling prisons with people who are not a threat to society is expensive and often works against integrating felons into a crime-free life.

The ‘Three Strikes You’re Out’ proposition has lengthened sentences for repeat offenders. However, the new proposition would let some criminals who have ‘two strikes’ avoid a 25-years-to-life sentence for a third crime if it is judged to be nonviolent and non-serious.

Recent polls show wide and deep support for the measure, above 70 percent.  A majority of every single subgroup, divided by political party, race, family status, income, region of the state, ideology and gender favored the measure, according to the September survey of 1,504 people.  “If Californians use the ballot box to say they want their state to try to find smarter ways to deal with prisoners, others will listen”, said Pew’s Gelb. “Precisely because California’s three-strikes law is so notorious, any changes in that law will reverberate around the country.”