California recently passed a law that will require review of nonviolent 3-strikes cases that ended in life sentences. The LA Times estimates that there are over 2000 inmates across California that will be affected by the change. Their story discussed how it’s unfolding in Los Angeles, where one judge has been assigned the review of all the local cases, to work toward consistency in the amended sentences.
I have long been a critic of automatic, overly harsh sentences. Laws that take away all discretion often lead to unjust results. The idea behind such laws is that they will be a deterrent, but the reality is that many crimes are not logically thought out. Florida used to advertise the 10-20-Life gun laws heavily, in diverse media formats. Lately, I haven’t seen any of the ‘Use a Gun and You’re Done’ commercials: which may be related to state budget constraints. Without advertising the harsh penalties, the deterrent effect is eliminated, and the penalty is just as harsh for someone unfamiliar with the law.
Unjust results frequently occur when discretion is taken away from the judges and prosecutors that handle the cases. The LA Times story tells about a 74 year-old who has served over 15 years for possessing a mere $10 worth of drugs. Florida was in the news last year on the case of Marissa Alexander, a first-time offender who fired a warning shot at her allegedly abusive husband. She didn’t hit anyone, but was convicted and the judge bound to giving her a 20-year sentence. That’s a day-for-day sentence, with no possibility of early release. That’s years more than the maximum sentence for other serious felonies, such as rape or manslaughter. Certainly, it is appropriate to severely punish certain offenses harshly, but it’s an injustice if the punishment does not fit the crime. California has exercised reason in revisiting its harsh mandatory penalties, and Florida would likely benefit by revisiting some of our minimum mandatories as well.