Fighting crime & overspending

Dec. 2, 2012

By Steven Greenhut

SACRAMENTO — For advocates of less-intrusive government, finding the good news in the recent election is like looking on the bright side after your house has been wiped out by a hurricane: You never did like that floor plan, anyway, and this seems like a great opportunity to rethink your lifestyle.

The political storm was particularly fearsome in California. Democrats already are floating trial balloons now that they have gained a legislative supermajority that allows them to pass direct tax increases without GOP support.

But there was some good news, however slim, on the ballot in the long-neglected area of criminal-justice reform. California voters passed, 69 percent to 31 percent, Proposition 36, to reform the state’s notoriously tough “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” sentencing law.

In 1994, California voters passed Prop. 184, which targeted repeat offenders. Under that law, if a person convicted of two serious or violent felonies commits a third “strike,” it would automatically lead to a life term with no possibility of parole for 25 years. It’s debatable how much “three strikes” contributed to falling crime rates, but there is little question that California’s strict version led to rising incarceration costs and high-profile instances of injustice.

Unlike any of the other 23 states that passed three-strikes laws, California imposed the life sentence on offenders whose third conviction was for “any” felony, rather than for a serious or violent one. So we’ve witnessed cases where offenders have received that life term for robbing someone of a piece of pizza, kiting a bad check and other relatively minor crimes.


The costs of implementing the law are enormous, especially in a state where the union-controlled, crowded and arguably inhumane prison system costs the taxpaying public $47,000 a year to incarcerate each inmate. Studies put the estimated annual savings of Prop. 36’s passage at $70 million to $200 million, which is significant even in spendthrift California.

Under Prop. 36, a criminal receives a life term only if the third strike is violent or serious or if the offender is previously convicted of child molestation, murder or rape. In other cases, if the third strike is not violent or serious, the offender receives a doubled sentence.

The good news is the reform effort sparked little controversy. A number of prominent conservatives spoke out in favor of Prop. 36, including Grover Norquist, the nationally prominent sponsor of the “no new taxes” pledge. He was quoted in the ballot argument: “The Three Strikes Reform Act is tough on crime without being tough on taxpayers. It will put a stop to needlessly wasting hundreds of millions in taxpayers’ hard-earned money, while protecting people from violent crime.”

Norquist also is a member of a group called Right on Crime, which officially endorsed Prop. 36. Its membership — i.e., Ronald Reagan’s attorney general Ed Meese, potential Republican presidential contenders Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich — isn’t flush with people who send contributions to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Right on Crime argues: “Conservatives are known for being tough on crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending. That means demanding more cost-effective approaches that enhance public safety. A clear example is our reliance on prisons, which serve a critical role by incapacitating dangerous offenders and career criminals but are not the solution for every type of offender. And in some instances, they have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders — making them a greater risk to the public than when they entered.”


It’s significant that conservatives would jump-start this discussion, which is needed now that Republicans are regrouping and trying to put together a bundle of government-reform issues that might appeal to the nation’s voters.

Despite the general impression that California is a left-wing hothouse, it has long been a law-and-order state where both parties have played cynically on the public’s oftentimes legitimate fears about crime. There’s been little willingness here to do more than build more prisons and throw more money at a system dominated by the prison guards union, which has lobbied against reforms to protect its “business.”

When I came to California in 1998, it was toward the end of the gubernatorial race that pitted Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren against Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis. Both men were engaging in a “tough on crime” arms race that reached the most absurd levels when, as the New York Times reported, Davis “said in a televised debate, on issues of law and order, he considered Singapore — a country that executes drug offenders — ‘a good starting point.'”

Davis won that race, then was recalled and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, despite his long list of failures, did try, unsuccessfully, to take on the guards and buck the orthodoxy of conservatives who found law-and-order their only winning issue outside of holding the line on taxes. Both parties were appealing to voters who, according to a recent San Jose Mercury News analysis, voted only five times since 1912 “to curb the power of the state’s criminal justice system.”

The GOP today has a great opportunity to focus on justice and cost savings given that the California Democratic Party has let its union domination trump any concern about civil liberties, and it has never cared about protecting the public from excessive taxation. Since Davis, the Democrats have refused to be outflanked on the right on public-safety issues. They have a simple approach to criminal justice matters: Give the police unions and prison guards’ unions anything they want.

Perhaps the opportunity simply is born of receding public fear as crime levels drop to historic lows. Whatever the case, with the passage of Prop. 36 and the emergence of Right on Crime, there’s a clear blueprint for Republicans who want to put into practice their oft-stated promises about reforming and limiting government.

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Write to him at: [email protected]


Write a comment
  1. Ted Steele, Janitor
    Ted Steele, Janitor 2 December, 2012, 08:58

    Greenster! I stopped reading your piece for a moment at the first graph…What was wrong with the last election??? For God’s sake little buddy– we the people spoke! It’s good!

    Reply this comment
  2. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 2 December, 2012, 09:09

    Greenster! I stopped reading your piece for a moment at the first graph
    Then go SPAM another blog, ask Ed if you can come back and spam Calpensions again, why does your pea size dbrain even make these dumb comments?

    Reply this comment
  3. Ted Steele, Janitor
    Ted Steele, Janitor 2 December, 2012, 12:41

    hmmmm you don’t read so well Poodle…… “for a moment”—— I finished reading Greenies article– I like his articles……mmmmmmmmm take a deep breath….mmmmmmm

    Reply this comment
  4. Hondo
    Hondo 2 December, 2012, 12:50

    I think we should empty our prisons of non citizen, non violent drug offenses. Deport them with the promise they will never come to america again. The prisoners won’t go for it. They wanna stay in Amerika, even if it means staying in jail.
    I agree that the third felony should be violent. 5 felony’s of any type should be automatic life.
    The majority of crime is committed by the same people over and over and our sentencing should reflect that.
    I was in a grocery store parking lot years ago when an rude panhandler demanded spare change. I told him to get a job, that I had 3. His buddy came at me with a 40 ounce beer bottle calling me a faggot. These two gay men who were watching two cars away, yelped. I calmly asked the man with the bottle if this was now a felony, a robbery. Something clicked the the dudes head.
    He turned and started away from me, walking then running. I chased after the guy calling HIM a faggot and the two gay men cheered me on. I let him go.
    To this day, I wonder if he had 2 felonies already knew the third was the bitch, 25 to life(I was in Colorado at the time).
    I came back and the two gay men hugged me for saving their honor and my life.
    This is a true story.
    These three strikes laws are important if used right.

    Reply this comment
  5. SeeSaw
    SeeSaw 2 December, 2012, 14:34

    The recent election went very well for the majority of Californians. Prop. 30 passed and Prop. 32 failed. And, the whipped cream on the cake was the fact that President Obama was re-elected.

    As far as three strikes are concerned–I do not favor incarerating people for anything, that does not constitute physical danger to others. If the crime is of the white-collar variety, there are other punishment methods.

    Reply this comment
  6. Donkey
    Donkey 2 December, 2012, 14:46

    We have no just system of justice, hence the unequal distribution of any punishment among our jail population.

    We have a prison industtial complex that rivals the old Soviet Union in size, not something one looks for in the land of the free and home of the brave.

    Our system has become so corrupt, that our courts have nothing but show trials or terror plea bargaining to grow the ranks of felons for the PIC.

    Citing the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College in London, former Assistant Treasury Secretary Paul Craig Roberts points out that “the US has 700,000 more of its citizens incarcerated than China, a country with a population four to five times larger than that of the US, and 1,330,000 more people in prison than crime-ridden Russia. The US has five percent of the world’s population and 30 percent of the world’s prisoners. The American incarceration rate is seven times higher than that of European countries.”

    One of every 32 adult Americans is either imprisoned, on parole, or on probation. Roberts is of the opinion – a point of view he has ably defended in his extremely valuable book The Tyranny of Good Intentions – that a very high percentage of the prison population consists of people who have been wrongfully convicted. This isn’t because our jury system is useless, but rather because “hardly any of the convicted have had a jury trial. No peers have heard the evidence against them and found them guilty. In the US criminal justice (sic) system, more than ninety-five percent of all felony cases are settled with a plea bargain.”

    I am all for Law and Order, but not at the cost of the individuals Bill of Rights protections, nor the incarceration of millions, for draconian years, for non-violent crimes.

    The local police also need reform and a course on the Constitutional rights of the American citizen, along with personal punishment when they are shown to have preyed upon our citizens. 🙂

    Reply this comment
  7. Donkey
    Donkey 2 December, 2012, 14:51

    SeeSaw, dance while you can, because as with all crumbling empires, they rot first from the inside. Soon the RAGWUS feeders will be feeling the wrath of the makers, the takers will be put at the back of the line. 🙂

    Reply this comment
  8. Ted Steele, Janitor
    Ted Steele, Janitor 2 December, 2012, 15:19

    Duncey is back!!!!!! LOL– the sky is falling!!!!!!!!!!

    Reply this comment
  9. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 2 December, 2012, 17:28

    SeeSaw says:

    The recent election went very well for the majority of Californians.


    The recent election went very well for the trough feeding public employees who have bought off the legislature and NO ONE else, much less the majority of Californians.

    FIXED seesaw 😉

    Reply this comment
  10. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 2 December, 2012, 17:31

    Duncey is back!!!!!! LOL– the sky is falling!!!!!!!!!!
    That is what the troughers are saying in SB 🙂

    Reply this comment
  11. Ted Steele, Janitor
    Ted Steele, Janitor 2 December, 2012, 17:58


    Reply this comment
  12. Donkey
    Donkey 2 December, 2012, 18:04

    Ted, it is those that deny like you that will feel the most pain. 😉

    Reply this comment
  13. NTHEOC
    NTHEOC 2 December, 2012, 18:06

    Rex the wonder dog says,
    That is what the troughers are saying in SB
    And what about what the citizens said in donkey’s hometown of huntington beach? Oh ya,they voted for the second time to keep the “PENSION TAX” in place!!!!!!! Hahahahaah! so again, more cities choose the other route than BK.

    Reply this comment
  14. NTHEOC
    NTHEOC 2 December, 2012, 18:10

    SeeSaw says:
    December 2, 2012 at 2:34 pm
    The recent election went very well for the majority of Californians. Prop. 30 passed and Prop. 32 failed. And, the whipped cream on the cake was the fact that President Obama was re-elected.
    I couldn’t be more happy and proud of my fellow californians,and Americans!!!! I just wonder how many tears the righty teabaggers at the CWD have left!!!

    Reply this comment
  15. Donkey
    Donkey 2 December, 2012, 19:46


    Reply this comment
  16. Donkey
    Donkey 2 December, 2012, 19:48

    Ntheoc, the taxes that the RAGWUS bought will only hasten BK my friend!! 😉

    Reply this comment
  17. NTHEOC
    NTHEOC 2 December, 2012, 22:09

    Donkey says:
    December 2, 2012 at 7:48 pm
    Ntheoc, the taxes that the RAGWUS bought will only hasten BK my friend

    Reply this comment
  18. bobby
    bobby 2 December, 2012, 22:50

    I love that The Pizza Thief Jerry DeWayne Williams tugs at everyone’s heartstrings … my thoughts on this are simple.

    If you’ll steal pizza from a child, there’s precious little that you WON’T do. F’ ’em, lock ’em away never to see the light of day.

    Some things the government spent money on piss me off. This one? I’d write the check without hesitation or reservation.

    Reply this comment
  19. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 2 December, 2012, 23:13

    NTHEOC says:

    I couldn’t be more happy and proud of my fellow californians,and Americans!!!! I just wonder how many tears the righty teabaggers at the CWD have left!!!

    Im no right winger, or “teabagger”, but I shed millions of tears Nov 6…… 🙁

    Reply this comment
  20. Ted Steele, Janitor
    Ted Steele, Janitor 3 December, 2012, 07:46

    Poodle says he is no right winger/no tea bagger?

    Classiuc republinonsense!

    0 for 14 ™!

    Reply this comment
  21. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 3 December, 2012, 11:13

    Teddy, stop spamming. I am tired of your spam, bring back uhaul or Queeg.

    Reply this comment
  22. Thomas Molitor
    Thomas Molitor 3 December, 2012, 12:08

    In 1980, fewer than half a million Americans were incarcerated. By 2008, the number was approaching 2.5 million. Another 4 million people are on probation. It is not violent criminals who are filling the nation’s jails and prisons. About half the prisoners in state penitentiaries are considered violent; less than 8 percent in federal prisons are violent, and fewer than 22 percent in the nation’s jails are there for a violent offense.

    How can cash-strapped governments keep the monolithic judicial system operating?

    Prop. 36 is a good start because it shifts the argument away from the politics of morality (or, politicians wishing to play the tough sheriff in town who has come to “clean up things” but in truth is merely is trolling for votes) to a budget issue.

    Reply this comment
  23. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 3 December, 2012, 17:45

    Public unions OWN and RUN our so called “justice” system.

    Even on the federal level where the quality of judges is vetted very thoroughly and is light years better than the state judges there is STILL a ton of bias, cronyism and personal ideology in most rulings.

    Reply this comment
  24. Ted Steele, Janitor
    Ted Steele, Janitor 4 December, 2012, 21:14

    Poodle calls it our “so called” justice system”….LOL— like in HIS wisdom he could create a better one!

    Reply this comment

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