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Repeat Offenders Begin to Clog California Courts

'Three strikes' law locks up the state's worst felons but has increased workload and strained resources

TWENTY months after California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) signed the nation's first ''Three strikes, you're out'' law - threatening third-time felons with life in prison - enforcement officials say the state's criminal-justice system is getting mugged.

Enormous backlogs of criminal cases are clogging courts, long delays are extending into civil jurisdictions, and soaring numbers of high-risk prisoners are forcing the early release of scores of inmates being held on less serious crimes.

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''This law has created the single greatest increase in workload in the 30 years I've been associated with the criminal-justice system,'' says Michael Judge, chief public defender for Los Angeles County. ''The legislators and public of California have voted for this law, but no one has yet managed to figure out how to pay for it to be enforced.''

With the intention of creating a tougher response to repeat offenders at a time of ever-increasing crime rates, Mr. Wilson signed the ''Three Strikes Law''on March 7, 1994. The legislation was reaffirmed by voters in a citizen's ballot initiative the following November. Taking California's victory as their model, many states began preparing similar initiatives.

The California bill and the initiative increased the penalties for second felony-offense convictions to twice the term formerly required. It also raised the penalty for a third felony conviction to 25 years to life.

Proponents of the law, who note that roughly 10 percent of the nation's criminals are responsible for 70 percent of the nation's crimes, say that any increase in court backlog will be temporary, as repeat offenders are put away for good. They argue that public safety demands the strongest possible deterrent against repeat felonies.

Yet six months after Three Strikes took effect, the law began to show some side-effects. A 42-county survey by the bipartisan, state legislative analyst's office indicated many courts had diverted resources from civil to criminal cases, resulting in longer periods to resolve civil disputes. District attorneys had begun opting to prosecute far fewer misdemeanor cases, leaving thousands of civil violations unpunished. And significant numbers of sentenced inmates were being released in order to make room for more ''three strikes'' offenders waiting trial.

Now, the broader view of early state assessments is being brought into vivid relief by a more specific study to be discussed publicly here Monday by citizens and politicians of the law's most heavily impacted county, Los Angeles. Intended not as an attack on the new law but rather as a factual appraisal for use by law enforcement, courts, and legislators, the year-long study was ordered by County Supervisor Gloria Molina.

''[The system] has responded with tremendous elasticity and through innumerable adjustments and accommodations, we have bolstered the structure where we could,'' says the report. ''However ... it is inescapably clear that the structure is weakening and that major cracks are leading to serious and unacceptable breaches in our system of justice.''

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Among the key findings:

* ''Three strikes'' cases are three times more likely to go to trial than all felonies and four times more likely than the same type of case prior to the implementation of the ''three strikes'' law.

* For 1994-95, the county's costs for the law was more than $101 million and by 1996-97, projected costs will be $309 million - a 206 percent increase.

* Thirty-seven percent of ''two strike'' and 53 percent of ''three strike'' cases filed since March 1994 are still open for trial. Both remain in the court system much longer (16 percent for two strike and 41 percent for three strike).

* The high-security jail population has increased from 36 percent to 62 percent since the law's inception and the pre-adjudicated jail population (those not yet sentenced) has increased from 58 percent to 69 percent.''

''Whatever the long-term benefits of this law are going to be, the short-term burdens have been shown to be enormous,'' says Judge James Bascueof the Los Angeles Superior Court. Noting that in Los Angeles County, the average one-year sentence has been reduced to 71 days, Judge Bascue says: ''Keeping afloat by lowering misdemeanor prosecutions and freeing lower-threshold offenders has to dramatically affect the quality of life in a community.''

Robert Mimura, executive director of the Countywide Criminal Justice Coordination Committee, says the effects of the new law go well beyond dollar figures and have hit particularly hard because of a county budget deficit.

''We have so far prevented meltdown by taking from Peter to pay Paul,'' he says. Besides utilizing other county budgets such as health and welfare, 30 civil courts have been given over to full-time criminal duty, he says.

Public defender Judge has added 30 full-time lawyers to his staff and is contemplating hiring 10 to 20 more. ''I have never seen the stress level this high in my office,'' he says, adding that he has had to make numerous personnel changes to maintain harmony.

Twenty-nine prisons are already being built statewide to keep up with projected offenders. But because 42 percent of the state's ''three strikes'' cases arise in L.A. County and 50 percent of the county's cases are still pending, Judge says the financial impacts have not yet reached the state level.

''When these cases result in prison sentences, it's going to cost the state billions,'' he says. ''The state is not prepared for what is about to hit.''

On Monday, the new study figures will be aired before public and politicians alike with the hope that law changes can be made or new ways of coping with ''three strikes'' cases will be found.

Amid all the public outcry, District Attorney Gil Garcetti maintains that ''three strikes'' ''is a good law. It's just expensive and no funding was provided when it passed. We are near the breaking point for available resources.''

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