"Three Strikes" Could Be on Its Way Out

By Sarah Beller 10/17/12

The campaign to pass California's Proposition 36, reforming the state's draconian "Three Strikes" law, is going well, activists tell The Fix.

Inmates in a yard at Central California's
Women's Facility.
Photo via

In 1998, Bernice Cubie was sent to prison for life under California’s "Three Strikes" law, for possession of $10 worth of cocaine. She's never injured anyone and has served over 14 years. The 59-year-old grandmother now suffers from an advanced form of terminal cancer. She's one of over 4,000 people serving life for nonviolent crimes in California under Three Strikes, which imposes a life sentence for almost any offense—including simple drug possession, no matter how small the amount—if a defendant has two prior convictions for “violent” or “serious” crimes. Three Strikes is disproportionately applied to people of color like Cubie (71.2% of three-strikers are black or Hispanic), mentally ill people and the poor. And of course, the law hits addicts hard: they account for nearly two thirds of those affected.

On November 6, Californians will vote on Proposition 36, a bill seeking to reform Three Strikes. Repeat criminals would still get life in prison for serious or violent crimes under the new proposal—and a third crime that isn't serious or violent would still earn double the normal sentence. But backers say Prop 36 will protect people with no history of violence from life sentences, save California over $100 million a year, and leave prison space for violent offenders. Dan Newman, a strategist for the Yes on Prop 36 campaign, tells The Fix, “The campaign is going well. We have support from Democrats and Republicans, leaders in law enforcement and civil rights, and virtually every editorial board in California.” The LA Times reports that 95% of the money raised around this cause has been in support of the proposition.

One organization, PORAC (Peace Officers Research Association of California) is dedicated to fighting Prop 36, and has donated $100,000, the largest single contribution, to do so. Its president, Ron Cuttingham, tells The Fix that Prop 36 is unnecessary because there is "already judicial review… If it's appropriate they can waive the strike.” But if the possibility of judicial review already exists, why should we worry about Prop 36 passing? According to Cuttingham, those whom Prop 36 would benefit “are not nice people… Nice people don’t get sent to prison.”

Earlier this year, at the recommendation of prison doctors, a California parole board met to consider a compassionate release petition for Bernice Cubie. Despite the fact that she has less than six months to live, and would seek drug treatment counseling upon release, her plea was denied. Under current law, she won't have another opportunity for parole until 2023. Californians will soon have the chance to help non-violent addicts receive treatment, rather than a lifetime behind bars.

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Sarah Beller is a writer and the Executive Director at Filter. She has written about drug policy with a focus on harm reduction for Substance.comThe Fix and Salon. She has worked as a social worker with formerly incarcerated people in New York for a number of years. Her writing has also appeared in McSweeney’sThe HairpinThe ToastReductressThe Rumpus and other publications. You can find Sarah on Linkedin and Twitter.