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Inmate counselor Vincent Russo talks about healthy relationships at an Addiction Recovery Counseling meeting at San Quentin State Prison in August.Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle

Convicts imprisoned under California’s three strikes law are no more inclined to high-risk “criminal thinking” than other inmates, but are far more likely to be addicted to drugs and alcohol, according to data from the state prisons department.

The psychological, substance abuse and education profiles of thousands of inmates – obtained and analyzed by California Watch and the San Francisco Chronicle – reveal that the state imposes especially lengthy sentences on felons with substance abuse problems who have not necessarily committed violent offenses.

But according to their profiles, these inmates would pose no more a threat to public safety than a non-three-strikes inmate.

The never-before-released data could play an important role for critics and supporters of California’s three strike’s law, amid a dramatic year for criminal justice reform. Thousands of inmates are being transferred to county jails under a realignment plan championed by Gov. Jerry Brown, and voters are being asked to alter the state’s three strikes initiative with a ballot measure in November.

The act of judging a person’s criminal proclivity is steeped in a long and controversial history of guesswork and junk science. But modern social scientists and criminologists say California’s prisoner surveys ranking “criminal thinking” – which have been verified through rigorous studies of recidivism rates – are reliable tools to gauge risk factors and psychological makeups.

The data shows that about one-third of all prisoners – including second- and third-strikers – need cognitive therapy to deal with their criminal tendencies, the impulse that drives them to break the law. But the need for substance abuse rehabilitation is overwhelming among inmates serving two- or three-strike sentences.

Some prison reformers say the profiles show a vast need for additional money and focus on drug treatment programs. But for supporters of the state’s three strikes law, a person’s motivation for committing a crime is far less important that taking habitual criminals off the street for a long time.

Mike Reynolds, who spearheaded California’s three strikes law after his daughter was murdered, said most offenders who have committed repeated serious or violent felonies have demonstrated that they’re not motivated to change their ways or get clean. Drug use, he said, can lead to future violent crimes.

“The offenders that murdered my daughter were high on methamphetamines, and they had been doing them for God knows how long,” he said. “It was over a simple purse snatching, a low-level felony, something that you’d never put a guy in prison for 25 to life. They murdered her in a New York minute, pulled out a .357 Magnum, put it in her ear and executed her right on the spot.”

The data, obtained through public records requests, consists of risk scores for more than 49,000 of the 134,000 people incarcerated in state prisons as of March. The state has been conducting the assessments since 2006. Among the findings:

  • Drug addiction is the major problem among habitual criminals. Third-strikers scored “high risk” for addiction 3½ times more often than they did low risk. Nineteen percent of these prisoners displayed no need for drug or alcohol treatment.
  • In all, nearly 70 percent of convicts with a third strike show a high need for substance abuse treatment, compared with 48 percent of all inmates tested. The numbers are stark for third-strikers whose last offense was a burglary: 76 percent scored high risk for substance abuse.
  • When measuring inmates’ “criminal thinking” risk levels, which indicate whether they exhibit anger or antisocial behaviors that spur criminal activity, the data shows that the scores of third-strikers’ are similar to those of inmates with no strikes on their records. Overall, roughly 30 percent of all prisoners have “high risk” thought patterns.

California Corrections Secretary Matt Cate acknowledged that the state is so overwhelmed with prisoners that it places inmates based on where it finds one more bed, with little thought about how to reform prisoners to prevent future crimes.

The lengthier sentences imposed under the three strikes law are costly, according to the California State Auditor. In 2009, the auditor estimated that additional years imposed under the sentencing law up to that point would ultimately cost the state an additional $19.2 billion.

Now, however, Cate said the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is developing a plan to expand its rehabilitation services and do a better job of placing prisoners where those services are available. He said the changes are aimed at reducing recidivism.

“Consider second- and third-strikers … we’re not providing nearly enough rehabilitation … so how are they going to get better?” Cate said, adding that many inmates – strikers or not – need substance abuse treatment, as well as cognitive behavioral therapy, to address mental issues that drive them to break the law.

Daryl Kroner, a criminology professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and former prison psychologist, said the data offers “pretty strong” evidence that substance abuse treatment could have prevented some repeat offenders from becoming third-strikers.

“If they came in once or twice and you treated their substance abuse,” Kroner said, “the likelihood of them being a third-striker goes down substantially.”

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Inmate Winfred Saddler participates in an addiction recovery meeting. State data shows nearly 70 percent of third-strikers have a high need for substance abuse treatment.Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle

Assessing inmates

State officials are hoping rehabilitation programs will make a difference for at least some offenders. To do that, the state has been interviewing inmates for six years as they enter prisons and plans to use the data collected to find which inmates need what programs.

The corrections department’s assessments are designed to determine whether a person needs behavioral therapy, drug and alcohol treatment, or an education and job training. The state turns the interview answers into scores based on whether a person is deemed to be at low, medium or high risk for problems such as abusing drugs or alcohol.

In November, voters will once again head to the polls to decide whether to change the three strikes law, which critics and supporters both view as the nation’s harshest sentencing law for repeat criminals. The ballot measure would largely limit life sentences to convicts who commit serious and violent crimes. To date, the three strikes law, which was enacted in 1994, has resulted in more than 8,800 people being locked up for 25 years to life.

But Proposition 36 won’t address what the data indicates is the greatest factor contributing to a convict’s third strike: substance abuse. The prison system currently can provide substance abuse rehabilitation to only about 1,500 people at a time, or 2,800 inmates a year.

State officials now say they plan to expand the availability of drug treatment programs so they reach up to 70 percent of the prison population requiring rehabilitation in the future – and will target those inmates who show a critical need in the risk assessments.

This increase will be possible, in part, because of Brown’s realignment program, which shifted incarceration of tens of thousands of felons from the state to the counties and has shrunk the state prison population.

Currently, only 15 to 20 percent of inmates receive any education, therapy or drug treatment – even though up to half of the prison population shows a need for such rehabilitation. Those programs were cut as lawmakers slashed prison rehabilitation spending by $250 million a year, starting in 2009.

If professor Kroner is right, expanded programming in state lockups could help several thousand people in prison for a second strike avoid incurring a third.

Heroin addiction fueled burglaries

For prisoners like Anthony Ramirez, who collected his three strikes for repeatedly breaking into homes and businesses, a decades-long addiction to heroin fueled his crimes. Over the course of 20 years, the often-unemployed drug addict from San Francisco racked up six burglary convictions.

His final act in December 1999 earned him a third strike and a sentence of 50 years to life. As Ramirez stole jewelry from a Marin County residence, the homeowner arrived; he fled, but was chased and caught by a neighbor.

In a phone interview from Pleasant Valley State Prison, Ramirez said he broke into properties again and again to fund his heroin habit. He said that during his many previous stays in state prison, he never was offered drug treatment. On the outside, he repeatedly tried and failed on his own to get sober.

Ramirez, now 71, insisted that he always tried to avoid contact during his burglaries.  

“I didn’t want the conflict that comes with that,” Ramirez said, “which could be dangerous for me and other people.”

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Sing Singleton, center, and Donald Davis, right, are part of an addiction recovery program. State data indicates the greatest factor contributing to a third strike is substance abuse.Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle

He is among about 1,300 third-strikers who have never been convicted of a violent crime against a person, according to Lee Seale, research director at the state corrections department.

In a court filing objecting to his third strike, Ramirez’s attorneys argued that the three strikes law wasn’t intended for nonviolent offenders like their client.

“He is one of the repeat offenders who should be deemed outside the scheme’s spirit,” Ramirez’s public defenders wrote. “His record clearly indicates that he cannot be properly classed with the violent offenders the three strikes legislation sought to target in its inception.”

Marin County prosecutors, however, believed that Ramirez fell inside both the letter and spirit of the law.

The fourth of 11 children, Ramirez ran away from his San Francisco home at 11 and began using drugs at 15, according to court records. He was shooting up heroin daily by 26. He was twice accepted into San Francisco’s Delancey Street residential treatment program following arrests, including the most recent case, but was sent to prison instead.

By the time Ramirez got into a treatment program, it was too late. While awaiting trial for the 1999 burglary, he underwent a treatment program that focused in part on “raising awareness of why you need to change.” He has maintained his recovery since, he said.

“A person has to want it,” Ramirez said. “The counselors in jail were terrific. … They raised my awareness to a point where I did want it.”

Ramirez wouldn’t be eligible to appeal his sentence if the three strikes measure on November’s ballot passes. The initiative is narrowly written and excludes anyone convicted of a third strike for a serious crime, such as burglary.

Studies show drug rehabilitation curbs recidivism only if the treatment course is completed both in prison and when inmates are released. The most successful approaches involve treatment communities, according to both national studies and evaluations of California’s prison system.

Within these communities, inmates live and undergo drug and behavioral counseling together.

“Drug rehabilitation is not a magic bullet,” said Barry Krisberg, director of research and policy at the UC Berkeley School of Law’s Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy. “It has shown positive results, but the defining characteristic of good treatment has been whether people actually complete the specified course of treatment, and that’s been a big problem.”

Ryan Gabrielson is a reporter for California Watch. Marisa Lagos is a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.

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Marisa Lagos covers state politics for the San Francisco Chronicle, focusing on the Legislature, elections and criminal justice. She writes a weekly column, Capitol Notebook. She previously worked for the San Francisco Examiner and Los Angeles Times.

Ryan Gabrielson is a reporter for ProPublica covering the U.S. justice system. In 2013, his stories for the Center for Investigative Reporting on violent crimes at California’s board-and-care institutions for the developmentally disabled were a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Previously, he was a reporter at the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Ariz. In 2009, he and Tribune colleague Paul Giblin won a Pulitzer Prize for stories that exposed how immigration enforcement by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office undermined investigations and emergency response. Gabrielson's work has received numerous national honors, including two George Polk Awards, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Silver Baton, the Al Nakkula Award for Police Reporting, and a Sigma Delta Chi Award. He was a 2009-2010 investigative reporting fellow at UC Berkeley.

A Phoenix native, Gabrielson studied journalism at the University of Arizona and now lives in Oakland with his wife and two daughters.