Local News

Friday, Sep 07 2012 04:27 PM

Three Strikes debate weighs effectiveness of law against need for change

BY REBECCA KHEEL Californian staff writer rkheel@bakersfield.com

Voters will have the chance to decide if California's Three Strikes law is working as is to reduce crime or needs to be fixed to reflect fair sentences for the crimes committed.

The decision will be made in November with Proposition 36, a ballot measure to amend California's Three Strikes law.

Proponents of the measure say it will help to alleviate prison overcrowding, save California millions of dollars and impose fairer sentences for minor crimes. But opponents argue the savings are minimal, dangerous criminals would be let off and the law works fine as is.

Opponents of the proposition presented their views at an editorial board meeting at The Californian on Thursday. Supporters of the proposition called into The Californian for an editorial board meeting Friday.

Under California law, a person who has twice been convicted of a violent or serious felony is given a minimum sentence of 25 to life for a third felony of any type. Proposition 36 would amend that law so that someone with two strikes who commits a nonserious or nonviolent felony would only be sentenced to twice the usual length for that crime.

Some people now in prison under Three Strikes would be eligible to apply for resentencing. If someone has certain serious, violent prior convictions like rape, murder or child molestation, he or she would still be subject to a 25-to-life sentence no matter what his or her third strike is.

Nearly 9,000 inmates in California state prisons are third strikers. About half were sentenced for nonserious, nonviolent third strikes. And about 3,000 would be eligible for resentencing.

Mike Reynolds helped draft the Three Strikes law, which was passed by California voters in 1994. He became an advocate for the law after his daughter, Kimber, was murdered during what started as a purse snatching. Kimber's murderer would have already been in jail if the Three Strike law had existed then, Reynolds said.

"It shows what happens when high level offenders are doing low level crime," Reynolds said. "Most people murder over the value of little to nothing."

Since the Three Strikes law passed, crime rates have gone down, he said. In 1994, California had the fourth highest crime rate in the country. Five years after Three Strikes, California dropped to 29th.

The proposition would save $100 million annually in prison and parole operations. But, Reynolds said, that is insignificant compared to the prison system's budget of billions of dollars and the cost to communities if criminals are released.

Supporters of the proposition, Reynolds said, "are assuming the release of 3,000 inmates, they'll just go out to la la land and never come back."

Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green added that the resentencing provision is unnecessary. A judge has already heard the case and used his or her discretion to decide an appropriate sentence for the criminal, she said.

District attorneys such as herself can also use their discretion to get rid of strikes or not prosecute a case as a strike, she said.

"To modify Three Strikes is, in my opinion, totally unnecessary," Green said.

But supporters argue that district attorneys and judges are not using their discretion to sentence third strikers accused of minor crimes. Jeff Robinson, associate director-counsel for programs and administration at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that puts the law at risk of being overturned entirely one day.

"Proposition 36 represents a very straightforward, reasonable reform," Robinson said.

Proposition 36 would not make California any less safe, Robinson said. First, third strikers have a lower recidivism rate than criminals who are actually being released, he said.

For example, 25 percent of criminals released now have a high chance of committing a violent crime, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Static Risk Assessment. That's compared to 6 percent still in prison under Three Strikes.

Second, the proposition frees up space and funds to imprison dangerous criminals, Robinson said.

Michael Romano, director of Stanford University's Three Strikes Project, has defended a number of clients serving life sentences under the Three Strikes law. One in Kern County was for someone caught with .029 grams of heroin with two prior strikes for residential burglaries. That was a case the district attorney, at the time Ed Jagels, could have used discretion not to apply a strike, but didn't, Romano said.

The biggest category of crimes three strikers are convicted for is simple drug possession, he said. Most of the people convicted under Three Strike have not committed heinous crimes, he said, just crimes of poverty.

"We're not eliminating Three Strikes. We're not repealing Three Strikes," Romano said. "We're merely restoring what we feel is the people's original intent."

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