Has three-strikes law made state's streets safer?
It was the nation's toughest sentencing law, billed as a way to rid California's streets of violent thugs and career criminals, like the man most responsible for the law's passage: the parolee who kidnapped and murdered 12-year-old Polly Klaas.
In the nearly 10 years since "three-strikes-and-you're-out" has been on the books, it has indeed been used to send thousands of robbers, rapists and other violent criminals to prison for 25 years to life.
But it's also slammed the prison gates on petty thieves who stole a few cookies, some videotapes or a pair of sneakers after committing more serious crimes in the past. In fact, of the 7,100 inmates currently serving three-strike terms, slightly more than half committed property crimes or drug offenses as their third strike.
Like many criminal laws, three strikes has wound up affecting thousands of run-of-the-mill cases in ways that hardly anyone foresaw when it passed in 1994. Unlike most laws, it owes its existence almost entirely to two grisly crimes: the 1992 murder of 18-year-old Kimber Reynolds of Fresno, whose father became the driving force for the law; and the October 1993 Klaas murder, which made three strikes an irresistible force in the Legislature and at the ballot box.
Mike Reynolds, a Fresno photographer, said legislators "laughed it off" when he first brought the measure to them in 1993. After the Klaas case, he said, "it became a freight train and you either got on board or you got out of the way."
The law has inspired three-strikes statutes in about half the states, as well as the federal government. But the California law is unique in force and scope, requiring a 25-to-life term for anyone who has committed two serious or violent felonies -- or strikes -- and is convicted of any type of new felony. That can include shoplifting by a criminal with a previous theft conviction, under another unique California law.
Legal and political arguments over the breadth of the law seem to be off the table for now. The U.S. Supreme Court closed the door to legal challenges in March when it upheld a 50-year-to-life sentence for a Southern California man with a long record of drug and property crimes and two third-strike convictions for shoplifting $153 worth of videotapes.
There's little immediate prospect of amending the law; a bill that would merely have required a study of three strikes was vetoed in 1999 by Gov. Gray Davis.
The focus of the current debate is whether the law has made Californians any safer. The answers vary.
"It's worked much better than even I had predicted 10 years ago," said Bill Jones, who carried the three-strikes bill through the Legislature in March 1994 when he was a Republican state senator from Fresno.
"It delivered the message to the repeat offenders who were committing upwards of 50 percent of the crimes in California that they had three choices: straighten up, go to jail or leave the state," said Jones, later California's secretary of state. "People sent that message and it worked."
Said Reynolds: "It's made a better quality of life for all of us, other than criminals."
To make their point, supporters cite a drop in the state's crime rate in the first six years after the law's passage: a 41 percent decline in California, compared to 22 percent nationwide.
But the law's opponents say the crime rates mean little because crime in California started declining in late 1991, continued downward at the same pace after three strikes took effect, and has increased each year since 1999.
What's more, opponents say, crime patterns within the state refute any cause-and-effect relationship between three strikes and deterrence. For example, in San Francisco, where prosecutors enforce three strikes less often than in any other urban county, the crime rate declined more than three times as much in the mid-1990s as in Sacramento County, where the law was used 12 times as often.
The 1994 law classified a long list of crimes, from murder to burglary, as strikes, and increased punishment for any subsequent felony. A one-striker must be sentenced to twice the usual prison term for a new felony. A two-striker with another felony gets 25 to life.
Whether a felony is charged as a strike is up to local prosecutors. In fact, said UC Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring, a critic of the law, prosecutors charge no more than one in 10 potential third strikes, and mainly use the law to extract tougher plea bargains.
As drafted, the law made sentences mandatory for second and third strikes. But a 1996 state Supreme Court ruling gave judges some leeway to disregard a defendant's prior strike convictions.
Three strikes, drafted in a backyard meeting at Reynolds' home shortly after his daughter's June 1992 murder, was proposed as a legislative measure and a ballot initiative, neither of which went anywhere at first.
Then on Oct. 1, 1993, 12-year-old Polly Klaas was kidnapped from her Petaluma home, a crime that horrified the nation. With the arrest of repeat felon Richard Allen Davis, who led police to her remains, "the phone lines here started smoking," said Reynolds. "They wanted petitions."
Politicians jumped on the bandwagon. Gov. Pete Wilson, facing re-election, shepherded Jones' three-strikes bill through the Legislature, rejecting a milder alternative backed by prosecutors. Reynolds' initiative qualified for the November 1994 ballot and passed with 72 percent of the vote.
Along the way, Reynolds first gained and then lost the support of Polly's father, Mark Klaas, and his father, Joe Klaas, who both said a three-strikes law should be limited to violent crimes. Both campaigned against the ballot measure, but Mark Klaas says he now backs the law because it's being enforced prudently and seems to be working.
"Maybe prison money could be better utilized elsewhere, like in schools, but every time you let a Richard Allen Davis onto the streets to kill a Polly Klaas, all the education funds in the world aren't going to help Polly," her father said.
Joe Klaas offered a different perspective in "The Legacy," a documentary film about three strikes.
"Justice for Polly, it's too late," he said. "Justice for the rest of the kids in this country is to create a better place for them to live, not just a place with bigger and better prisons."
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle
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