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Nowhere, but California; Three Strikes, tough on Crime

Unfortunately, over the last decade, holding a statewide office in California required a pledge of allegiance to the state’s grotesque Three-Strikes law. With a couch potato population afraid to walk outside their gated communities, "tough on crime" politicians flourished, taking victim's rights to extremes. Other state's have Three-Strikes laws, but California’s is the just plain ugly. It is the only one in the nation that considers non-violent felonies as second and third strikes.

All that may soon change.

In a petition campaign that has already quietly collected nearly 400,000 signatures, Citizens Against Violent Crime (CAVC) is ready to put an initiative on this November’s ballot that would amend the current law. If passed, California would cease to be the only place in the world where someone can be thrown into a maximum security prison for 25 years to life for stealing a pizza or a loaf of bread. The initiative needs only 375,000 valid signatures to qualify.

Three-Strikes was born of fear. In 1994, the California legislature approved the current 3-Strikes law in response to the murder of 9-year-old Polly Klaas. The intent was to make sure that violent career criminals would be kept behind bars. The reality was quite different.

The law was vague in describing the type of violations considered "Strikable" offenses. With a media-driven political climate that played to the voter’s fears, California’s Three-Strikes law soon imposed a mandatory 25 years-to-life sentence for non-violent crimes. With a prior arrest record, stealing a videotape could result in a prison sentence of one-quarter century.

But bad law has a price. The financial blowback from Three-Strikes laid waste to California’s already debt ridden budget. The price tag was $35,000 a year per inmate to maintain the more than 30,000 non-violent offenders in California prisons. This was passed on to California taxpayers at a rate of more than 1 billion dollars a year. And that figure got higher as more non-violent offenders were imprisoned.

CAVC’s new version of Three-Strikes is called "The Three-Strikes and Child Protection Act of 2004" (here, in pdf format). If passed, only violent and/or serious felonies would be counted as a strike. The Act allows prisoners convicted of non-violent and/or petty crimes to apply for re-sentencing — an opportunity that will not be afforded to those convicted of violent and/or serious crimes. It also creates a "One-Strike" 25-years-to-life sentence for sex crimes committed against children under ten — an amendment that scored exceptionally high with focus groups.

So far, it appears that California is ready to soften its tough on crime stance. The petition is considered a “stopper” by signature gatherers. One mention of amending “Three Strikes” gets the attention of a prospective signer.

Adding fuel to the signature collection drive is a recent report that concludes that since its enactment, California's current three-strikes law has had little impact on cutting the rate of violent crime.

So who supported the current law? Who wanted a pizza thief in lockdown for 25 years? The list is bipartisan. Democratic State Senator Dianne Feinstein. Democratic Ex-Governor Gray Davis. Current Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Republican Ex-Governor Pete Wilson. Republican State Senate Candidate and original Three-Strikes author Bill Jones. Republican Ex-State Attorney General Dan Lungren. Democratic Ex-State Attorney Bill Lockyer. The list is disgustingly long.

Will any of them flip flop?

Schwarzenegger is already hedging his bets. As the campaign season plays out and the initiative gathers steam, the once so-called “tough on crime” crowd will gradually throw their support to the new law. After all, it will be hard to oppose the grandfather of Polly Klaas, who is chair of CAVC.

“The current 3-Strikes law has only added to our grief over Polly’s death,” Klaas says. “My family is deeply disappointed by the law that passed in her name because of its failure to focus on hard-core criminals by diverting critical resources to the prosecution of non-violent offenses.”

According to Klaas, the new law “will resolve this terrible miscarriage of justice and restore a sense of purpose to my granddaughter’s death.

“Locking up shoplifters for 25 years” Klaas says, “is not equivalent to being tough on crime.”

— Nathan Callahan, March 5, 2004


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