Californians brought a close to a shameful period in the state’s history when they voted this month to soften the infamous “three strikes” sentencing law. The original law was approved by ballot initiative in 1994, not long after a parolee kidnapped and murdered a 12-year-old girl. It was sold to voters as a way of getting killers, rapists and child molesters off the streets for good.
As it turned out, three strikes created a cruel, Kafkaesque criminal justice system that lost all sense of proportion, doling out life sentences disproportionately to black defendants. Under the statute, the third offense that could result in a life sentence could be any number of low-level felony convictions, like stealing a jack from the back of a tow truck, shoplifting a pair of work gloves from a department store, pilfering small change from a parked car or passing a bad check. In addition to being unfairly punitive, the law drove up prison costs.