Three Strikes Law Hits People of Color Hardest

Article excerpt

In 1993, the state of Washington passed the first socalled "three strikes" law, which mandates long periods of imprisonment for people convicted of a felony on three separate occasions. Today, 21 states have adopted three-strikes laws, including California, which instituted its version in 1994. Now, more than a decade later, former secretary of State Bill Jones, who co-authored the legislation, describes the policy as "the most effective criminal justice initiative in the history of California."

But many disagree with Jones's assessment, arguing that the law has put away a disproportionate number of minorities for life. Of the 42,000 inmates imprisoned under California's three-strikes system, 45 percent are Black, 26 percent are Latino and 25 percent are White.

"We're overcrowding prisons with generations of young men of color at $31,000 a year. Nearly two-thirds are locked up for nonviolent offenses," says John W. Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League.

According to a recent Justice Policy Institute report, "Racial Divide: An Examination of the Impact of California's Three Strikes Law on African Americans and Latinos," Blacks are sentenced to life at nearly 13 times the rate of Whites. Latinos, meanwhile, are sentenced at a rate 82 percent higher than Whites under the three-strikes legislation.

Maya Harris, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California's Racial Justice Project, says California has spent $6 billion over the past decade to imprison nonviolent offenders. …