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

Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

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

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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.

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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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