New Report Finds 3 Strikes Used Disproportionately On Minorities

Justice Policy Institute Press Release, Oct. 7

Washington, DC: New data released today by the Justice Policy Institute revealed that California’s Three Strikes law disproportionately locks up African Americans and Latinos compared to whites. According to this first-of-its-kind analysis of the racial and ethnic makeup of Three Strikes defendants, African Americans are given life sentences under Three Strikes at nearly 13 times the rate of whites and the Latinos are incarcerated under Three Strikes a staggering 82% more than whites.

According to Racial Divide: An Examination of the Impact of California’s Three Strikes Law on African Americans and Latinos, African Americans and Latinos are penalized at every stage of the criminal justice system at rates disproportionate to their share of the general population.

“Three Strikes is systematically funneling African American and Latino defendants into prison for longer and longer sentences, mostly for non-violent crimes,” said Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of Justice Policy Institute (JPI), and co-author of the report. Schiraldi added that the racial disparities for African Americans were particularly harsh by criminological standards “Rarely does one see any law imposed so disproportionately against one racial group,” he added.

The report found that African Americans constitute 6.5% of the state population, but nearly 30% of California’s prison population, and 44.7% of those sentenced to life under Three Strikes. By contrast, whites constitute 47.1% of the population, 29% of the prison population, and 25.4% of third strikers. When comparing arrest and incarceration rates between African Americans and whites, African Americans are arrested at 4.4 times the rate of whites, imprisoned at 7.5 times the rate of whites and ‘struck out’ for life at nearly 13 times the rate of whites.

“We’re overcrowding prisons with generations of young men of color at $31,000 each per year, nearly two-thirds of whom are locked up for nonviolent offenses,” said John W. Mack, President of the Los Angeles Urban League. “Surely it’s a better investment for society to spend that money on front end prevention and jobs rather than wasting it on the imprisonment of nonviolent offenders who have harmed no one.

The report also analyzed data from counties throughout California regarding the racial impact of Three Strikes. In every county, African Americans made up a higher portion of the ‘striker’ population than they did of the felony arrest population. In Los Angeles County, 10% of the population is African American and African Americans are 29% of those arrested, but African Americans represent an astonishing 56% of those serving life sentences under 3 Strikes. In Contra Costa County, African Americans made up 17.7% of felony arrests, but 52% of the strike population—three times their arrest rate.

San Mateo County had the largest African American-to-white disparity of California’s large counties. In that county, the Three Strikes incarceration rate for African Americans was almost 28 times greater than the white Three Strikes incarceration rate.

In Santa Clara County, the findings were similar as African Americans represent only 2.7% of the population, but 27% of those locked up under 3 Strikes. Santa Clara County stood out as the county with the largest over-representation of African Americans and Latinos. Santa Clara also had the highest disparities between Latinos and Whites of any of the large counties in California; Latinos were imprisoned under Three Strikes at nearly three times the rate of whites. Data on racial and ethnic rates of arrest and incarceration under Three Strikes are included in the report for each of California’s counties.

“Three Strikes is turning California’s prisons into a purgatory for minorities,” said report co-author Eric Lotke, director of research at JPI. “What this research shows is that justice in California is far from colorblind.”

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