The Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project has been successful in overturning life sentences where the third strike was imposed on non-violent felonies. This has resulted in changed lives — from the defendants now freed to the families that have supported them. Now, Stanford law professors are trying to take it on a statewide level. Submission post by Charisse Domingo
by Tracey Kaplan, San Jose Mercury News
An effort to limit California’s tough Three Strikes Law is gaining momentum, with a proposed ballot initiative that would reserve the toughest penalty — 25 years to life — for the baddest of the bad, including murderers, rapists and child molesters.
The initiative, now under state legal review, was carefully crafted by a group of Stanford University law professors and stops far short of the extensive changes proposed under a previous reform measure that narrowly failed in 2004.
The Legislature and voters passed the Three Strikes Law in 1994 after several high-profile murders committed by ex-felons sparked public outrage, including the kidnapping from her Petaluma home and strangling of 12-year-old Polly Klaas. Since then, the courts have sent more than 80,000 “second-strikers” and 7,500 “third-strikers” to state prison, according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office. Though third-strikers make up just 6 percent of the prison population, they are responsible for a disproportionate share of the state’s spiraling prison health care costs — at least $100 million annually — as they age and need more medical attention, according to the California auditor.
The previous measure, Proposition 66, sought to restrict felonies that trigger a “third” strike to violent or serious crimes. Under the existing law, life sentences have been issued for such relatively minor crimes as stealing a pair of socks, attempting to break into a soup kitchen to get something to eat and forging a check for $146 at Nordstrom.
In contrast, the new initiative allows certain hard-core criminals, including murderers, rapists and child molesters, to be put away for life for any felony, including shoplifting, while restricting the third strike to a serious or violent felony for everyone else.
“We’re making absolutely sure that these (hard-core) criminals get no benefit whatsoever from the reform, no matter what third strike they commit,” said Dan Newman, a spokesman for the campaign.
The group, including Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project, hopes to start gathering signatures in mid-December, after lawyers at the state Attorney General’s Office finish their review of its proposed title and summary. Proponents need to collect 504,760 signatures by mid-April to qualify the initiative for the November 2012 ballot.
Backers are hoping the initiative will fare better than the one in 2004, partly because of the greater number of younger voters and minorities expected to turn out next year for President Barack Obama’s re-election bid.
The group also has been courting key Republicans such as Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, at a time when fiscal conservatives have called for prison reform. Cooley opposed Proposition 66, but favored more modest changes.
Unlike Proposition 66, the new measure does not include changing the rules for second-strikers, which currently call for sentences to be doubled in many cases, even if the second offense is not serious or violent. The proposal also does not redefine “serious” or violent felonies, as Proposition 66 did. And while Proposition 66 required third-strikers whose last offense was nonviolent and nonserious to be resentenced, the new initiative would allow third-strikers only to request the courts resentence them.
Cooley stopped short Tuesday of endorsing the proposed measure, saying he wanted to wait for the “optimal time” to weigh in, as well as give his fellow district attorneys a chance to review it. But he noted the proposal is similar to legislation he strongly supported in 2006, which narrowly failed.
“It is a very modest proposal,” Cooley said. “I’m just waiting for the appropriate time to announce my views.”
Some are wary
But Mike Reynolds, a Fresno man who helped draft the Three Strikes Law after his daughter was slain in 1992 by two repeat offenders, said voters should be wary of making any changes, given the possible impact of Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent realignment of the criminal justice system.
Some law enforcement officials have predicted that realignment, which shifts responsibility for certain lower-level offenders from the state prison system to the counties, will cause a possible crime wave because many offenders will serve less time behind bars or under post-release supervision.
“People better wait and see the impact, before lowering any other laws,” Reynolds said.
Tuesday, a coalition of sheriffs, public safety officials and local government leaders filed a separate proposal for a ballot initiative that would constitutionally protect funding for realignment.
Newman declined to say how much money the three-strikes campaign has raised or whether it will use volunteers or paid workers to collect signatures. But the group has secured at least one major financial backer, David W. Mills, a former investment banker and Stanford Law School professor. It also hired San Francisco political consultants Newman and Averell “Ace” Smith to lead what is expected to be a contentious campaign.
“At this stage we’re focused on building a broad coalition of law enforcement leaders, academics, civil rights leaders and taxpayer advocates,” Newman said.
Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482.