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Californias 3 Strikes Policy = Disproportionate Sentencing

Since 1994, California has governed the streets with a “3 strikes and you’re out” mindset, where a felon has three chances to commit a felony, each with significant increases in punishment. After the third violation: conventionally, a life sentence with no parole before 25 years is typical. According to an article written by John R. Sutton and published by the Law and Society Association, after analyzing the data and creating a hypothesis, he believes that the three strikes policy “suggested the law's impact would mainly be symbolic because local officials would ignore, subvert, or nullify its major provisions.” This postulation is reasoned with data and statistics, using “multilevel models applied to case level data from 12 urban California counties to test hypotheses about shifts in average punitiveness.” According to this rationale, the three strikes policy has not impacted California in the intended effect of reducing crime and preventing recidivism. On the contrary, according to the Law and Society Association, the three strikes policy has had the consequences of “sentences have become harsher, particularly in conservative counties, and black felons receive longer prison sentences.”

These unfortunate outcomes can be explained through many misdoings of the government, the first being the vagueness of the term “strikeable.” According to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, “the California law defined strikeable offenses expansively, including with the usual list of violent felonies a set of ‘serious’ but nonviolent felonies such as selling drugs to minors, burglary, and weapons possession.” The reason the ambiguity of this law is problematic is because it defeats the purpose of the law: the general deterrence, making the public aware of their limited violations and consequences, and specific deterrence, making a prisoner with strikes less likely to commit another felony in fear of getting that third and final strike. By not clearly defining the transgressions substantial enough to obtain a strike, many people get incarcerated and a strike for an offense that is non-violent, and end up debiting one of their three chances. Furthermore, while is commonly assumed that for the third strike to be checked off, the felony has to be a violent crime, however this is not always the case: “California is unique in that any felony can be called a third strike at the discretion of the prosecutor, not just those on the ‘serious or violent’ list.” What's fundamentally wrong about this approach because it doesn’t judge a defendant on the case at hand, rather their previous mistakes. To put it in context, for a crime such as burglary, the difference between a defendant receiving a life sentence and or several years or other forms of sentencing such as probation and restitution, is the amount of strikes or past crimes the defendant has incurred.

For instance, take the case Ewing v. California (2003)According to Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute, the facts of this case are that Gary Ewing stole three golf clubs and concealed them in his pants. At the time of the theft, he was on parole from a nine year prison term. After the theft, the court deemed his robbery as a violent felony conviction, and because he already had two strikes from several previous serious or violent felonies, he was sentenced to 25 years to life. This ridiculously stringent sentence was clearly not fitting of stealing golf clubs, and Ewing appealed, explaining that his sentence violated the Eighth Amendment which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Though the crime was disproportionate to the sentence, the court denied that unlawful and unjust action was taken, reasoning with the three strikes policy. Clearly, the effect of the three strikes policy is the disproportionate and often unreasonable sentences given to at least this one defendant in California because it is hard to believe that someone could get such a harsh punishment merely for stealing golf clubs.

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