Three Strikes Reform
California’s current Three Strikes law, passed initially by voter initiative in 1994, mandates a sentence of 25 years to life for a third felony conviction. Even felonies as small as shoplifting or possession of tiny amounts of drugs are covered by this law, resulting in thousands of non-violent men and women spending their lives in prison instead of being given the chance for rehabilitation. Under the Three Strikes law 16-year-olds can begin to “collect” strikes—setting themselves up for a lifetime in prison.
Proposition 36 would amend the current Three Strikes law to exclude non-violent, non-serious crimes as potential third strikes, thus focusing the life sentence only on violent or serious felonies such as rape, murder, or child molestation. While Three Strikes laws exist in dozens of other states, California is the only state where a non-violent, non-serious third felony activates the mandatory life sentence. Additionally, under Proposition 36, the approximately 4,000 men and women who have been sentenced under Three Strikes, but whose strikes are non-violent and non-serious, would be re-sentenced retroactively if a judge determined they do not pose a risk to public safety.
Bend the Arc believes in the importance of a fair and merciful criminal justice system that focuses on rehabilitation and restitution rather than retribution or unjust penalization. As Jews, our priorities should be encouraging t'shuva (repentance) rather than incarceration. The current Three Strikes law goes against that ideal; punishing individuals whose crimes are relatively minor with a life sentence does not allow them to make t'shuva and become contributing members of society. There is an injustice embedded in the law as written, and it should be our imperative to fix it.
The passage of Proposition 36 also would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars in court and prison costs. With California facing a devastating budget crisis and prisons extremely overcrowded, releasing the thousands of men and women from prison who have been unfairly sentenced will ease some of the stress on state and county budgets.
Finally, there is strong Jewish precedent for supporting Proposition 36. Various legal codes shed light on the nature of prisons in Jewish thought. The original biblical idea of prisons was not even to provide structured incarceration for the criminals, but to provide refuge from the society and a place for meaningful rehabilitation. In the book of Numbers, God commanded the Israelites to construct six Arei Miklat, “cities of refuge,” as safe havens in which offenders could rehabilitate. In the Arei Miklat criminals could reflect on their actions and make necessary restitution—and then go back to being productive members of society. They could find, according to theologian Samson Raphael Hirsch, “forgiveness and rebirth.”
In this time of accelerating rates of state-sponsored incarceration, Jewish legal codes remind us that prisons are meant to be occupied only temporarily; no one should serve time longer than necessary. The medieval law code, Minhat Yitzhak, records a debate about whether a prison is obligated to put up a mezuzah. Neither side argues yes, but the reasoning of each party was different. Beit Hillel believed that prisons are not dignified homes. The Birkei Yoseph agreed that mezuzot should not be affixed because “these places (prisons) are made to be temporary dwellings, not permanent dwellings.”
More recently, over the past 150 years, Jewish activists in the movements for prison and criminal justice reform have advanced efforts to implement more humane ways of addressing crime and punishment. In solidarity with those efforts and with a belief in the fundamental injustice of the current Three Strikes law, Bend the Arc strongly encourages a YES vote on Proposition 36.