San Francisco Chronicle: Two strikes have large impact on prison population — Expensive to incarcerate state’s repeat offenders

California is currently going through a Supreme Court mandated process to reduce its prison population, but experts ask whether they are looking at the most burdensome sentencing schemes, and the most bloated inmate populations, like two strikers…

July 31, 2011| By Marisa Lagos, Chronicle Staff Writer

Jeff Adachi, San Francisco Public Defender

California’s “three strikes” law is best known for locking up career criminals for life, but the vast majority of offenders serving prison time under the sentencing mandate were actually charged under the less-noticed second-strike provision.

These 32,390 inmates are serving sentences that were doubled as a strike-two penalty, and they account for nearly 20 percent of the state’s prison population. Yet most efforts to reform the law have focused exclusively on the third-strike provision, which carries with it a mandatory 25 years-to-life sentence.

As prison costs in California continue to grow, and the state faces a Supreme Court order to reduce its inmate population by more than 30,000 over the next two years, the tens of thousands of second-strikers appear to pose a bigger challenge to state officials attempting to rein in prison costs than the 8,700 people serving time for a third strike.

“We’re missing the significance of the second strike,” said UC Berkeley’s Barry Krisberg, director of research and policy at the school’s Institute on Law and Social Policy. “It is having an enormous impact on our prison population, and many second-strikers are serving more time than third-strikers, but when people talk about the policy of reforming three strikes, nobody wants to touch the second strike.”

‘Arbitrary’ sentencing

Under the three strikes law, approved by the Legislature and voters in 1994, anyone who was convicted of a serious or violent felony in the past can be charged with a strike if they commit a new felony. Someone charged with a second strike under the law will face double the prison time, regardless of whether the new offense is serious or violent; those charged with a third strike automatically are eligible for a 25 years-to-life sentence.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said the law means that someone convicted of petty theft or burglary who had a prior felony could face four to six years in prison instead of two to three years; and someone convicted of armed robbery would spend at least a decade behind bars instead of five years – or perhaps longer if prosecutors added on sentencing enhancements for using a gun.

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