By Tracey Kaplan, San Jose Mercury News –
SAN JOSE, Calif. — An initiative written by Stanford University professors to scale back California’s tough Three Strikes Law has garnered more than 830,000 signatures of support, virtually ensuring the measure will make the November ballot and triggering the state’s latest struggle over how harshly criminals should be treated.
California is the only one of the 26 states with three strikes laws to allow prosecutors to charge any felony as a third strike — and then to lock up the offenders for 25 years to life. The proposed initiative would reserve that penalty for the baddest of the bad, including murderers, rapists and child molesters.
Supporters turned in more than 830,000 signatures to state election officials Thursday — 504,760 more than needed. They also announced the endorsement of Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley — a Republican — marking a crucial step toward a bipartisan coalition.
“The Three Strikes Reform Act is right for California,” Cooley said. “It will ensure the punishment fits the crime. Dangerous recidivist criminals will remain behind bars for life, and our overflowing prisons will not be clogged with inmates who pose no risk to public safety.”
Under the existing three strikes sentencing scheme, offenders who have committed such relatively minor third strikes 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 have been sentenced to life in prison.
Cooley’s support is particularly notable because he has taken a conservative position on two other criminal-justice controversies in California. He opposes a November ballot measure that would scrap the death penalty and has sharply criticized the Legislature’s massive “realignment” program, which started in October to relieve prison overcrowding, for effectively reducing the amount of time low-level offenders spend behind bars.
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 prosecutors like Cooley should have more discretion over how to charge anyone with two strikes on their record who commits another felony, no matter how minor.
“It’s easy if you live in Palo Alto, where Stanford is and where it’s safe, to be for this,” Reynolds said. “The only question voters need to answer is which of these offenders with at least two serious or violent convictions on their record would you like to have living next door to you? And if you wouldn’t want them next door to you, why would you put them next to any California family?”
The proposed initiative was crafted by a group of Stanford University law professors and backed by the New York-based NAACP Legal Defense Fund. George Soros, a prominent supporter of liberal causes, has donated $500,000 to the campaign, and Stanford law professor David Mills also has contributed.
The measure is modeled on Cooley’s attempt in 2006 to modify the law and his long-standing policy to rarely seek a third strike unless the offense is a violent or serious crime.
The new measure would allow only certain hard-core criminals to be put away for life for any felony offense, including shoplifting, while restricting the third strike to a serious or violent felony for everyone else.
It also 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. Although an effort to alter the law in 2004 required third-strikers whose last offense was nonviolent and nonserious to be resentenced, the new initiative would allow only third-strikers to ask the courts to resentence them.
According to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, revising California’s law would save state taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year initially and up to $100 million a year in the long run.
Scaling back the law also has the support of some conservatives, including Right on Crime, a criminal justice reform movement whose signatories include anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist.
“The Three Strikes Reform Act is tough on crime without being tough on taxpayers,” said Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. “It will put a stop to needlessly wasting hundreds of millions in taxpayers’ hard-earned money, while protecting people from violent crime.”
Advocates predict the savings will prove persuasive, particularly with critical swing voters, though they also plan to frame the campaign in terms of public safety and fairness
A previous measure in 2004 failed by about 3 percentage points after a last-minute media blitz by then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Gov. Pete Wilson. Brown has declined to comment on the current effort. Opposition to the new measure is expected to come largely from the Central Valley and parts of Southern California.
The previous measure, Proposition 66, sought to limit felonies that trigger a third strike to violent or serious crimes in every case.
The Three Strikes Law was passed by both the Legislature and the voters in 1994. It was propelled by public outrage following several high-profile murders committed by ex-felons. The most notorious case was the strangling of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, who was kidnapped in 1993 from her Petaluma home.