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15 Years After ‘Three Strikes’ Law, Calif. Prisons Packed

Above: Inmates at the Mule Creek State Prison interact in a gymnasium that was modified to house prisoners August 28, 2007 in Ione, California.


Aired 10/8/09

California's prison sentencing laws are some of the toughest in the nation. They have led to massive overcrowding in the state's 33 prisons. Today we look back on how "three strikes" became law in California more than 15 years ago, the role politics has played, and the adverse effect it's had on one San Diego family.

Video unavailable. Read transcript below.

Above: California Three Strikes Law, passed 15 years ago, is leading to overcrowded prisons. The editors discuss whether it's time to revise California's sentencing laws.

California's prison sentencing laws are some of the toughest in the nation. They have led to massive overcrowding in the state's 33 prisons. Today we look back on how "three strikes" became law in California more than 15 years ago, the role politics has played, and the adverse effect it's had on one San Diego family.

"This thing has just tore my family apart."

BROWN: Mae Tucker calls it an ungodly law. Her son Antwoine is serving 35 years to life under the three strikes law. Tucker says Antwoine was depressed after losing a friend and uncle to murder; he even tried to kill himself. He was on the verge of being evicted from his apartment when he decided to rob someone.

TUCKER: They gave my son two strikes at once on that.

BROWN: California voters passed the three strikes law in the spring of 1994. The rationale was that such a law would keep repeat violent offenders off the street and away from the public. The law requires a minimum of 25 years to life for three-time offenders who commit serious or violent crimes. But Tucker says her son never had trouble with the law. She claims he was falsely accused of a second robbery.

TUCKER: The only reason they allowed this to go to trial was because they say he was close to the crime scene. But my son says he was nowhere near the crime scene. And when we finally got the GPS log it backed up what my son says but they won't give us the radio log. Because we want to see what that officer was saying because we really believe that once we get the radio log it's going to prove that officer wasn't telling the truth about the situation.

BROWN: Her son Antwoine ended up at Corcoran State Prison, one of the toughest prisons in the state. It's also where serial killer Charles Manson is housed. Since the passage of three strikes San Diego County has been one of the toughest enforcers. Prosecutors say they are responding to the will of the people where 75 percent of voters approved the law, pursing life terms for petty thieves as well as violent thugs.

MCELROY: You've got people in prison for stealing a pizza, for stealing wooden palates, for taking a beer and not being able to pay for it. Those are life sentence offenses as ridiculous as it sounds. And those are the people that are in our prisons.

BROWN: McElroy says it's all about politics. He led the fight against the three strikes law. He says the prison population is double the system's capacity, and that's made it tougher to manage and pay for because the state is overloaded with aging prisoners for life.

MCELROY: A friend and former Republican leader in the legislature told me he believes his party has been drunk for years on the heroin of tough on crime. And it's an addiction not limited to Republicans by any means.

BROWN: California's overall crime rate started falling even before three strikes was passed. In fact in was down 10 percent between 1991 and 1994. Crime fell another 40 percent after three strikes but the reduction appears to be part of a national trend. McElroy remembers the push for determinant sentencing before three strikes. The idea was the time should fit the crime.

MCELROY: Determinant sentencing was put in to be fair, but the problem is the legislature then jumped on it and began kicking those sentences up and then three strikes became the ultimate kick upward.

BROWN: So do you regret that vote?

MCELROY: No, I think we were absolutely right. The problem is it played right into the hands of the political cowards who believe they can ensure their reelection by being able to say they're tough on crime.

BROWN: So do you think this will end up back in the hands of voters?

MCELROY: I think it will. It has to get back in the hands of voters and I'm really concerned what the impact will be. It's very difficult to get voters to say this is something that we're willing to reform even if it means letting some people out of prison.

BROWN: Mae Tucker would rather see the law repealed than reformed. But she says one good thing has come of it -- her family is closer than ever and both of her daughters are considering law degrees.

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Avatar for user 'Pray4Peace'

Pray4Peace | October 9, 2009 at 8:48 a.m. ― 7 years, 5 months ago

Unfortunately there is so much fear mongering over criminal justice reforms that even though 3-strikes does not work as voters intended, repealing it will be difficult.

Those politicians who want to expand the prison system and send people out of state are again just kicking the prison crisis down the road for the next term of politicians. It is not sustainable.

We should evaluate individuals when deciding sentencing and release rather than continuing the one-size fits all tough-on-crime turned dumb-on-crime policies. That might have prevented the release of the man who recently killed the police officers in San Francisco, and could save salvageable lives and families of those who are unnecessarily locked up for too many years at our expense ($49,000 annually).

Unreasonably long sentences; unjustly denying parole to serious offenders who have served their time and are not, or no longer are, a threat to society; replacing mental hospitals with prison time; the 3-strikes law; and the overwhelmed, broken parole system are bankrupting the state.

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Avatar for user 'ReEntry'

ReEntry | October 9, 2009 at 9:14 a.m. ― 7 years, 5 months ago

Just follow the money..... which politicians are taking the money from the unions that want more work for their guards and all that work for the Cal. Dept. of Corrections and Revenge (CDCr)

Wake up California. We need a new Constitution. Throw out the present legislators.... they are unable to think clearly with all that CDCr money in their pockets

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Avatar for user 'CharlotteS'

CharlotteS | October 9, 2009 at 10:07 a.m. ― 7 years, 5 months ago

California has the highest recidivism rate nationwide. San Diego has the highest rate of recidivism state-wide. Prisons are extremely overcrowded, and their populations continue to expand as funding for rehabilitation programs contracts. Currently four people I've worked with as volunteers for community service as part of their respective programs, all male, are in correctional facilities in the county. All four of these men were parolees who have returned to the system in violation of the terms of their parole. In the past ten months four other men, who I've worked with in the same capacity, have been released from prisons in the county. I have a very different perspective on this topic, having put a face (faces) on the issue.
The problem, in my opinion, is being released and re-released into the same area where the original crime, and violation took place. I've developed a rapport with the convicts that work with me, and corresponded with some while they have been incarcerated. These men all sincerely state that they are going to rehabilitate and "straighten up and fly right" once they are released. This purposeful and wholehearted desire to do well, to get it right this time, often lasts less than a month. The system seems to be set up to fail. Ex-convicts often have trouble finding a job that provides a liveable source of income, finding a place to live, and finding a new social group to interact with. The earnest attempts to get their lives on track are abandoned after failing to meet the goals. Once beaten down by a series of rejections and having no support system aside from the network of friends (who are usually involved in the criminal community), it is easy to seek out companionship in old friends and in turn become involved in activities that are in violation of parole terms.
I don't know what the solution to this problem is, but exit programs for recently released inmates seem to be invaluable. Clearly the exit programs available now need to be revised and improved. I hope this happens in the near future.

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Avatar for user 'FrankCourser'

FrankCourser | October 9, 2009 at 2:20 p.m. ― 7 years, 5 months ago

There is no doubt California’s Three Strikes Law has jammed our prisons and cost taxpayers billions. Good reason why no other state in the nation has adopted California’s version. No where else in the nation can a shoplifter or drug user receive a life sentence. Yet every state in the nation has seen the same drop in crime as California. In fact strike-less New York saw a greater drop in crime and a greater drop in violent crime and is actually closing prisons while California is spending $7.7 billion dollars to expand its prison system. This really gives the lie to the argument that Three Strikes works to deter crime. If prisons were the answer to crime, then California should have mightily out shown the rest of the nation from a crime stand point and it has not! It has been a great benefit to the prison guards union whose members enjoy the highest pay in the nation and has grown union membership in an extraordinary way. So have the politicians that receive millions in campaign contributions from this union. Tax payers will foot the almost $20 billion dollars it will cost to have these petty criminals serve there full sentences.

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Avatar for user 'salina'

salina | October 11, 2009 at 8:09 p.m. ― 7 years, 5 months ago

As a former nurse inside the Calif. State Prison system I have seen first hand the ridiculous, cruel, erratic effects of the three strikes law. People who have never done an act of violence or even a large theft are incarcerated for 25 to life. It sickens me. It sends more than a million dollars per prisoner down the drain to incarcerate for life. What ever happened to our Federal Constitution? How can this be allowed? Now Californians are upset that they are loosing their schools, health and social services, parks and God knows what else to come. That is the cost of unconscionable incarceration. What politician has the guts to step forward and say enough?

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Avatar for user 'shindan'

shindan | December 8, 2009 at 7:28 p.m. ― 7 years, 3 months ago

Uh, people? Could we please look at the facts here? Most of us are complaining about costs, and The Three strikes law has saved us a good 54 billion dollars in the past 15 years! Not only that, it has saved lives as well! in the past 15 years, there have been 9,385 less murders than in the 15 years before, even with 14 million more citizens! As for the prison population, it was projected that it would increase by 250,000 in merely 5 years, when in 15 years it has only risen 10,000. And for those who might say that the accusations are unfair, that people are thrown in jail for little to no reason at all, notice this; did this article mention the circumstances of the crimes Mr. Tucker committed? All it said was that he stole something, when a strike can be given only for a violently committed felony! There's something that this site is not mentioning! The Judge can lessen or increase the sentence at his or her discretion, depending on the merit of the crime for a 25 years to life sentence! Sure, my sources are the Department of Justice, but can you come up with anything better?

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