Today — February 25, 2014 — I want to take a moment to remember the legacy of a girl named Chelsea King.
Chelsea was an activist, a runner, a student, a friend, a daughter, and a spunky, charismatic, jovial bubble of joy. This Tuesday marks the fourth anniversary of Chelsea’s disappearance from Poway, Calif., and eventual murder. While she no can longer light up rooms with her smile or belt out a tune on her French horn, her legacy carries on today in the form of Chelsea’s Law.
Chelsea’s Law protects California’s children today with increased penalties, parole provisions and oversight for violent sexual offenders of children. This law is specifically targeted at criminals that our society cannot risk letting loose again: Certain offenses carry a one-strike punishment, meaning that especially vicious crimes would automatically merit life imprisonment without parole.
The rationale for such harsh sentences is clear: The Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that child molesters and statutory rapists released from prison have a 5.1% recidivism rate — 5.1% of these criminals were rearrested for a new sex crime within three years of their release. While that number does not seem very high, over the course of many years, not adopting a one-strike law would risk the safety of many children. Chelsea’s Law is now in place in California, and variants of it are being pushed forward in other states to prevent these avoidable tragedies.
This law protects society by cracking down on crime. The California Three Strikes Law, enacted in 1994 in response to the murders of Kimber Reynolds and Polly Klass, has similar motivations. It requires that any criminal offender with two prior convictions for crimes deemed serious or violent by the California Penal Code be sentenced to a minimum of 25 years to life in prison.
While valiant in purpose, the Three Strikes Law has done more harm than good.
Unlike Chelsea’s Law, the 1994 law does not specifically target any type of crime. Instead, it uses unclear, overly broad terms such as “serious” and “violent” to condemn any third-time offenders to life in prison. Legally, the term “serious” can include anything from murder to kidnapping, extortion or arson, a definition that, during sentencing, essentially disregards the huge differences in these crimes.
The California State Auditor found that in 2009, 25% of inmates in California institutions had been sentenced under the Three Strikes Law and that the increased costs of the law totaled $19.2 billion. But when safety is on the line, it can be argued that any cost is justified. In fact, the Legislative Analyst’s Office found that crime rates fell by 43% between 1994 and 1999. Is that proof enough to warrant the billions being spent on this law?
No, it is not — for several reasons. First off, the crime rate has been declining since 1991, even before the passage of the Three Strikes Law, so the law has not necessarily reduced crime in any major way. Secondly, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, over half (56%) of those convicted for a third strike were convicted because of a non-serious or nonviolent offense. Lastly, this law has proven to be racially biased to an unacceptable degree, with 37% of second and third strikers being African American. (Only 6.6% of California residents are African American.)
In 2012 California made huge progress by passing Proposition 36, the Three Strikes Reform Act. This legislation aims to shorten the sentences of those that are serving life terms for non-serious, non-violent crimes and who no longer pose a threat to society. The reason for this distinction is that, as a clinical psychologist from the Probation Service of England and Wales points out, this rehabilitation is not equally possible for serious violent offenders, like rapists.
So far, the legislation has been targeted correctly: A Progress Report of this revision shows that those released since the implementation of this Proposition have only a 2% recidivism rate. This is good evidence that the Proposition is only serving to help those that are among the safest to release from custody.
Proposition 36 is a crucial step forward, but it cannot solve everything. The Three Strikes Law is still straining society today. It has placed an unnecessary burden on the California prison system that cannot be so easily reversed. In the meantime, the lengthy petition process for resentencing is now clogging California courts. While papers are being processed and cases are being reviewed, people unfairly sentenced still remain in prison, continuing to raise prison costs and fill space that is needed for more serious criminals.
The Three Strikes Law is a lesson to legislators and voters that policies must be narrowly tailored to society’s most important ends. Chelsea’s Law is a reform that is doing just that.
Although the 25th of February is always an emotional day, this year we can also celebrate the legacy that Chelsea is leaving through her namesake law. Chelsea’s Law continues to protect California’s children from violent sexual predators as well as carry out the due process of law by avoiding the pitfalls of overgeneralization that the Three Strikes Law still suffers from. Today is a day of renewed hope for a better future. Today is a day to remember that Chelsea’s light continues to shine on.
Contact Aimee Trujillo at [email protected].