California Propositions: Prop 36 – Reforming Three Strikes

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California has what is often called the toughest Three Strikes law in the country. It was passed in 1994. Under that law, anyone convicted of two serious or violent felonies can be sentenced to 25 years to life for a third felony–regardless of the nature of that third crime.

Proposition 36 would change that so that the third strike conviction would also have to be serious or violent to qualify for life behind bars. According to Stanford Law School Professor, Michael Romano, “It keeps intact the core purpose and intent of Three Strikes. But it would change the rules for people who have committed non-serious, non-violent crimes.”

In addition to being a professor, Romano is also director of Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project, a non-profit that provides legal help to defendants who’ve been sentenced to 25 years to life for a non-serious third strike: “folks who’ve been sentenced to life for shoplifting a pair of socks, stealing a dollar in change from a parked car, simple possession of 0.03 grams of methamphetamine.” Romano says these are exactly the kind of cases that would be affected by Prop 36 and that changing the Three Strikes law in this way would make the punishment fit the crime.

Under Prop 36, 2,800 felons currently serving 25-years-to-life for a non-serious third offense could appeal to reduce their sentences—a move the state legislative analyst says could save California $70 to $90 million dollars a year. And it would come at a time when the state prison system is struggling with overcrowding. However, these third strike inmates would only get those sentences reduced if they could convince a judge they’re no longer a threat to public safety.

But not everyone agrees. Mike Reynolds calls himself the father of California’s Three Strikes law. The idea was drafted in his backyard, and he’s been fighting for it ever since. He says since it went into effect, the Three Strikes law has played a big part in driving California’s crime rate down 50 percent. “What we have is an absolute track record of what it does and what it hasn’t done over the last 18 years,” said Reynolds. “And you would throw that away for some hollow promise that it might save $70 to 90 million?”

For Reynolds, this is about more than just numbers. It’s also about what happened to his family in 1992–two years before Three Strikes was passed. “I’m the father of an 18 year old girl named Kimber,” he said. “Kimber was murdered by two repeat offenders, fresh out of prison. It was over something as simple as a purse snatching. It was in a very good neighborhood, in front of one of the most popular restaurants in Fresno, in front of the patrons. One of the men pulled out a 357 Magnum, put it in my daughter’s ear, and assassinated her right on the spot.”

Reynolds says under Proposition 36, some serious felonies would be exempted from a potential third strike lifetime sentence—crimes like kidnapping, child abuse, and vehicular manslaughter. And he’s concerned that releasing some third strike offenders could lead to a spike in crime.

However, according to Mike Romano, the changes proposed in Prop 36 have been in effect for the past 12 years in both San Francisco and in L.A. County, where District Attorney Steve Cooley made the changes when he took office. “This is one of the rare opportunities where a law that the state is considering has actually been tried and tested in California,” he said. “It’s been tried and tested in Los Angeles County where crime is down more than throughout the rest of the state.”

But Prop 36 critic Mike Reynolds argues that L.A. is picking up the slack and keeping crime low with a large and growing police force, something the mayor’s made a top priority—even in tough economic times. He says many other communities don’t have the budget to do that.

Law enforcement comes down on both sides of the issue. Backers of Prop 36 include both the L-A and San Francisco District Attorneys, as well as LA Police Chief Charlie Beck. Opponents of Prop 36 include the California Police Chiefs Association, the State Sheriffs Association, and the District Attorneys Association, as well as the LA Police Protective League.