A pair of hands behind jail bars

Golden State policy-makers do "hard time" debating the state's mandatory sentencing system.

A law designed to create continuity among California counties also tore Freddie Lawson's family apart.

Lawson's son, Derik, faces a 25-years-to-life sentence under the state's 1994 "Three Strikes" law, which mandates the term for criminals convicted of three serious felony offenses.  As Lawson explains it, Derik received his third strike after he "broke into people's houses and took whatever he could to support his [drug] habit," she says.

The story of Derik's sentencing clearly captures the ongoing policy debate over mandatory sentencing, originally intended to reduce crime and to create continuity among California's counties. Lawson wants to see her son rehabilitated for his drug offenses; backers of Three Strikes would like to keep burglars and other criminals off the streets.

Supporters of three-strikes, like Sen. Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine), say the threat of a Three Strikes conviction acts as a powerful deterrent, keeping would-be criminals either behind bars or in check, fearful of a long sentence. "If they were out and about, they'd be hurting people," Ackerman says of the jailed offenders.

But detractors—including the policy group Lawson works for, Families to Amend California's Three Strikes, as well as the state's public defenders—want California to adopt a system that re-habilitates these repeat criminals by addressing the root mental, physical or educational problems behind their criminal behavior. "Simply warehousing people in prison serves to harden people rather than rehabilitate them," says Barry Melton, president of the California Public Defenders Association.

Long-time attorneys, both Ackerman and Melton recalled the period before Three Strikes, when the state operated under more "discretionary sentencing." Judges used their own discretion to sentence criminals, meaning a defendant in Los Angeles, Marin and Del Norte counties could receive widely disparate sentencing for the same crime, the two lawyers agree.

Return to a more discretionary system?

Ackerman and Melton differ over whether the laws put in place to mandate sentences are fair. Ackerman says he thinks the system "works," but Melton says a more discretionary system would help the state rehabilitate offenders. 

Mandatory sentencing creates "an inflexible script" that does not allow judges to depart, even to encourage rehabilitation in cases where rehabilitation is needed, Melton says. "Sentencing should have two functions: to punish an offender, and to rehabilitate him. Depriving a judge of discretion also robs him of his ability to rehabilitate offenders."

Discretion remains, Ackerman counters; prosecutors can choose whether to try a case as a strike offense or accept a plea bargain; and judges and district attorneys can choose to dismiss prior offenses in certain cases.

The mandatory-versus-discretionary debate may find a new forum this year. The U.S. Supreme Court in a January ruling overturned all California determinate sentencing laws, meaning Ackerman and other lawmakers must come up with a legislative fix for the sentencing system.

Lawson—who still cries when speaking of her son—reminded decision-makers that sentencing policy affects real people. "Those are human beings, too" she says of the state's prisoners.