More “Strikes”: An Unintended Consequence of Realignment?

California’s counties are still figuring out how to adjust to “realignment,” the name given to the state’s efforts to comply with the judicial decree, upheld in Plata v. Schwarzenegger, that demands a reduction in the number of prisoners incarcerated in state prison.

Under one prong of this adjustment effort, many yet-to-be-sentenced convicts who once would have gone to state prison will serve their time in local jails, instead. As a general rule, defendants convicted of “serious” or “violent” felonies—also known as “strikes”—remain eligible for prison. (So do most sex offenders.) This dynamic begs the question: might realignment result in more “strike” convictions?

Here’s why this might occur:

1) While the state is footing some of the costs associated with realignment, no one knows if these payments will fully offset the costs of housing a prisoner in local jail. Meanwhile, the state is guaranteed to foot the bill if a defendant goes to state prison.

2) Furthermore, local judges and district attorneys might be loathe to clog up their jails with prisoners who will be taking up space there for several years, as might be the case post-realignment. Among the reasons why, a substantial body of long-term occupants may make it more difficult to accommodate the daily ebb and tide of short-term detainees.  Plus, some judges and district attorneys may have a lingering sense that some defendants who historically would have gone to prison should still go to prison, which now may occur only if the defendant is convicted of a strike.

3) In many cases, district attorneys have substantial discretion whether to allege, and insist upon a conviction for, a “strike.” For example, under California law, assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury is not, by itself, a strike. However, assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury that does produce great bodily injury is a strike. The threshold that caselaw and legislative history set for “great bodily injury” is not as high as one might think; on the right (or, depending on your perspective, wrong) facts, a broken jaw may suffice. Appreciating that the low bar for this “strike” may lead to disproportionate punishment, district attorneys sometimes choose not to allege a great bodily injury enhancement even when it would be justified. In other cases, prosecutors agree to dismiss the enhancement as part of a plea deal.

Put these facts together, and it seems at least possible that realignment will spur local district attorneys’ offices to charge “strikes” more often, and to insist upon more “strike” convictions in plea negotiations.  (Somewhat similar dynamics also may cause local judges to “strike” [which essentially means to remove, for sentencing purposes] prior strikes less often.)  I don’t know that this will occur, but it seems like a conceivable, if unintended, outcome.

If this result obtains, one response might be to think harder about requiring counties to foot at least some of the bill for the incarceration of the defendants they send to state prison. My colleague David Ball suggests as much in his recent paper Tough on Crime (on the State’s Dime): How Violent Crime Does Not Drive California Counties’ Incarceration Rates —And Why it Should, which provides an interesting take on the subject.

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