Seventeen years after California’s “three strikes” law was sold to the public as a way to keep rapists, child molesters and murderers behind bars, some criminal justice experts are pushing for an overhaul of the sentencing mandate they say is long overdue.
They say the law has driven up incarceration costs by billions, contributed to California’s prison crowding and resulted in harsh sentences that did not fit the crimes or circumstances.
To these critics, 42-year-old Shane Taylor represents everything that is wrong with three strikes.
At age 27, Taylor was drinking beer with friends in a car parked at a lookout spot in Tulare County when police pulled up to see if anyone was underage. An officer noticed a small bag poking out of Taylor’s wallet that contained methamphetamine, about a tenth of a sugar packet’s worth.
Had Taylor’s record been clean, he might have landed in county jail for a few years. But combined with two prior convictions for burglaries he committed at age 19, Taylor received the most severe punishment under the state’s three-strikes law: 25 years to life.
Now, 15 years after Taylor was locked up at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, the prosecuting attorney and sentencing judge say the punishment was too harsh.
“I made a mistake,” retired Tulare County Judge Howard Broadman said in a recent phone interview. “It’s too much time.”
An appeal of Taylor’s sentence is pending with the California Supreme Court. The appeal was filed after Broadman called a Stanford University professor who specializes in three-strikes cases and expressed remorse, saying he would not have handed down the long prison term had he better understood the three-strikes law, which had been in effect just two years.
“This guy should not be in prison this long,” Broadman said. “It bothered me that (he was) such a low-level offender. … When you are in a position of authority I was in at the time, you can make mistakes and it costs the state too much money, and it costs the offender and their family. It’s wrong.”
Taylor’s lawyers say their client’s story is not rare, and that the sentencing mandate has led to numerous other troubling cases.
They and other critics say it’s time to change the law, particularly because California faces chronic deficits and a court order to reduce its prison population by 33,000 over the next two years.
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