Prop. 36 Could Rescue Cali's 3-Strike Addicts

By McCarton Ackerman 10/01/12

California's three-strike law locks up many nonviolent drug offenders for 25 years to life. That could now change.

Prop. 36 brings hope for imprisoned addicts.
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Proposition 36, seeking to overhaul California's draconian "three strikes and you're out" law—which requires third-time offenders to serve mandatory prison sentences of 25 years to life—will appear on a state ballot next month. And most of the people who would be directly affected are addicts. Californians now overwhelmingly believe—by a margin of more than three to one—that the system should change, a new poll reveals. A recent comprehensive review of inmate reports by California Watch and the San Francisco Chronicle  shows that a large majority of third-strike convicts are addicts: 70% of them show a high need for substance treatment. It found that the state imposes especially lengthy sentences on felons with substance abuse problems, who haven't necessarily committed violent offenses and pose no greater public safety threat than non-three-strikes inmates.

Many corrections system officials believe that rehabilitation services like substance abuse treatment and cognitive behavioral therapy should be the MO, rather than longer prison sentences. “Consider second- and third-strikers… we’re not providing nearly enough rehabilitation… so how are they going to get better?” says California corrections secretary Matt Cate. The study also offers compelling evidence that early substance abuse treatment can prevent some repeat offenders from becoming third-strikers. "If they came in once or twice and you treated their substance abuse, the likelihood of them being a third-striker goes down substantially," says Daryl Kroner, a criminology professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and former prison psychologist. The three-strike law was enacted in 1994 and has since locked up 8,800 people for 25 years to life. Under the proposed changes, life terms for drug offenders and other nonviolent criminals would end—they'd instead be treated as if they had only one previous strike, which calls for double the standard prison term for their most recent crime. Inmates already serving 25 to life for drug and other nonviolent crimes could also get sentence reductions, if a judge deems them not to be a safety threat.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.