This November, my home state, California, will give voters an opportunity to reconsider its mandatory minimum sentencing scheme that has been in effect for almost 20 years.
California's "Three Strikes" law allows prosecutors to seek a mandatory twenty-five year to life prison term for three-time felony offenders. Under the law as it exists, non-violent felony offenders qualify for the mandatory sentence.
A ballot proposition will give California voters the chance to revise the law so that only serious violent offenders can be sentenced to the mandatory prison term upon their third felony conviction.
Finally...min-man reform in a state that once touted Three Strikes as an effective crime fighting tool. Not only did Three Strike fail to reduce crime, scores of non-violent third strikers are being given twenty-five year to life sentences while thousands of violent offenders are being released due to prison overcrowding.
So, California - do you feel safer knowing that cocaine addicts and car burglars are serving life sentences but paroled murderers and child molesters are moving into your neighborhoods as we speak?
Over 4,000 inmates in the California correctional system are presently serving mandatory life sentences for non-violent offenses.
So listen up, Florida. California's finally making some strides in the right direction and we need to follow their lead. Mandatory sentencing - if it should ever exist - must be reserved for the most violent and dangerous offenders for the most violent and dangerous offenses. The problem with the Three Strikes law is that it simply targets three-time felony offenders without distinguishing the violent from the non-violent.
Stealing $400 worth of sweaters from Macy's is a felony. So is growing marijuana. So is failing to return a rental car. All three are crimes and may warrant some degree of punishment, but does anybody think that mandatory life in prison is fair for any of these offenses? Under any circumstances?
Of course not. But politicians, who like to run on the popular platform of being "tough on crime," design catchy slogans ("three strikes and you're out") and draft rigid anti-recidivist legislation that appeals to a public that is widely clueless when it comes to the finer details of our laws.
In Florida, we have mandatory sentencing for violent offenders. But we also have it for non-violent offenders. Take a look at our drug trafficking mandatory sentencing scheme. And since trafficking in Florida is defined solely by weight and not by the possessor's intent, thousands of first-time offenders with drug problems are being sent to prison for long periods of time because the legislature says so. No distinction between drug dealers and drug users is made. Nor is a distinction made between a repeat offender and a first-timer.
Again - that is the true shame of a mandatory sentence. The complete lack of discretion by the courts. The prevailing wisdom is simply that a crime is a crime and a sentence is a sentence.
I applaud California's efforts to correct a wrong in its criminal justice system. Sentencing must focus on the individual - not merely the offense. If the offender is a violent recidivist who cannot be rehabilitated, maybe twenty-five to life is appropriate. But if the offender is a drug addict whose crimes are against property and not against people, a more suitable disposition must be imposed. As the timeless adage goes, the punishment must fit the crime.
Florida must take notice as the rest of the country realizes the ineffectiveness and fundamental unfairness of mandatory sentencing. It is my sincere hope that Tallahassee's true leaders - brave public servants unafraid of being perceived as "weak on crime" - will take charge of this issue and follow in California footsteps.