Prisons

Under New Law, Three Strikes Offenders Released With $200, But No Hope for a New Life

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Under California's old "three strikes" law, many repeat offenders were sentenced to life terms after their third felony–regardless of whether that felony was stealing laptops or killing someone. In November, Californians passed Prop. 36, a ballot intiative that prohibits judges from giving out life sentences for minor felonies. As a result, roughly 3,000 California inmates are eligible for early release.

Naturally, there's already a problem. After the language for Prop. 36 was set in stone, California legislators decided to shift the burden of supervising nonviolent offenders from the state government to local governments. The Contra Costa Times reports on the problems those decisions are creating: 

In an unforeseen consequence of easing the state's tough Three Strikes Law, many inmates who have won early release are hitting the streets with up to only $200 in prison "gate money" and the clothes on their backs.

"I feel like the Terminator, showing up in a different time zone completely naked, with nothing," said Greg Wilks, 48, a San Jose man who is poised to be released after serving more than 13 years of a 27-years-to-life sentence for stealing laptops from Cisco, where he secretly lived in a vacant office while working as a temp in shipping and receiving.

Because of the way the state's complex sentencing laws work, many of those strikers have already been locked up longer than their newly calculated terms and usual period of parole, leaving many to fend for themselves without supervision or assistance once they are released.

Under California's realignment of its criminal justice system, the role of supervising most nonviolent offenders is shifting in stages from the state to county probation officers. But neither the realignment statute nor the Three Strikes Law made provisions for monitoring released strikers.

Three strikes alumni aren't being funnelled into shelters, halfway houses, employment programs, or drug treatment–all of which have been shown to reduce recidivism. Instead, they get their old clothes, $200, a criminal record, and the implicit promise of readmission if they don't make the best of their newfound freedom. 

Sadly, we should expect more problems like these as the U.S. slowly steers away from decades of over-incarceration. South Carolina, to take another example, passed a sentencing reform bill in 2010 to reduce its prison population. While that population is indeed shrinking, the probation and parole population–because reducing penalties is not the same as eliminating them–is now growing

Agents at the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon services now are supervising 1,409 more offenders than they were two years ago. Each probation agent supervises an average of 97 cases, far above the national average of 50 cases.

To help, Gov. Nikki Haley wants to give the agency $1.2 million in additional money next year to hire 25 new probation agents. It is part of the probation department's three-year plan to hire 156 new agents to bring the average caseload down to 80 cases per agent.

State lawmakers have $263 million in "new" money – money that should recur in future budget years – to spend in the 2013-14 budget. But nearly all of that will be gobbled up by the state's Medicaid health insurance program for the poor and disabled, and increases in the cost of state employees' health insurance.

Shortsightedness on the part of legislators is one problem. The fact that state and local governments are loathe to spend money "helping" criminals is another (also see drug courts, which receive the bulk of their funding from federal grants). But the biggest problem is that none of the "Smart on Crime" or "Smart Justice" strategies currently en vogue involve repealing prohibition, which is the underlying driver of prison growth. 

(H/t Dara)