Cooley Ignores Three-Strikes Intent

Letter to the editor
Los Angeles Daily Journal,
Wednesday, SEPTEMBER 17, 2003
Vol. 116, NO. 180

As a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney for 34 years, and head deputy for the past 16 years, I am appalled at Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley’s three-strikes policy.

The voters of California passed the three-strikes law in 1994. It provides a 25-years-to-life sentence for criminals who commit a third felony after having been previously convicted of two or more violent or serious felonies, such as murder, rape or robbery.

The third felony does not have to be violent or serious. This provision of the three-strikes law recognizes that law enforcement does not always catch violent criminals committing violent offenses. Sometimes, a violent offender is caught doing a felony theft or other non-violent or non-serious felony in between the commission of violent crimes.

A very important aspect of the law is that the 25years-to-life sentence is not automatically imposed in all cases. The law requires that the court look at the defendant’s entire criminal record, not just the current offense. Both the district attorney and the court exercise discretion as to whether to pursue the case as a third strike.

This discretion includes consideration of many factors, primarily how long ago the violent offenses were committed and whether violence is still a part of the defendant’s criminal lifestyle. This discretion is used on a case-by-case basis throughout the state.

However, in Los Angeles County, Cooley has a blanket policy that treats all third strikes that are not violent or serious felonies as presumed second strikes. The only exceptions to this policy require the approval of a few select political appointees. This is not discretion but instead is an almost total eradication of the three-strikes law in the county when the third strike is not a violent or serious felony.

The results are frightening. According to Cooley’s staff, there are 1,500 to 1,600 presumed second strikes per year in Los Angeles County. Of these, only several, or about 1 percent of the total, are prosecuted as third strikes in the county.

Cooley’s policy is a virtual nullification of the people’s vote. In the nine years since the three-strikes initiative’s passage, the Legislature as refused to amend it. The state and US supreme courts have upheld it.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor of the US Supreme Court stated that the court would not act as a super-legislature. She echoed a basic principle of government: The Legislature, or the people through the initiative process, makes the law; the court interprets it; and the executive enforces it. Cooley’s policy, in effect, violates this basic principle.

Sadly, there are also very practical and frightening ramifications of this policy. The most obvious result is that Cooley has laid out the welcome mat for three-strike felons, in other parts of the state, to move to Los Angeles County. This is because no other counties have such a blanket policy. Instead, other counties follow the law while using appropriate discretion. As a consequence, other counties, with exception of those in the San Francisco Bay Area, are tougher on career criminals than Los Angeles County.

Cooley’s three-strikes policy has emboldened our homegrown gangsters. It is no accident that, last year, Los Angeles was the murder capital of the United States and is a solid favorite to retain its title this year.

Another unfortunate result of Cooley’s policy is that while it is felon and defense-attorney friendly, it is very anti-victim, particularly in our most crime-plagued neighborhoods. The felons who are beneficiaries of his policy do not live in suburbs or the affluent neighborhoods of this county. Instead, they live in neighborhoods where homes have bars over the windows and where parents are burying their murdered children in record numbers. Cooley should care about all citizens of this county, not just his rich and powerful campaign supporters.

Cooley’s policy is violating the spirit of his oath of office to uphold all laws, whether he or his supporters personally like the law. His policy is making this county a more dangerous place to live.

As stated by Superior Court Judge Dan Oki in a letter to other judges in 2001, [D]oes anyone doubt this in [two or three] years, some defendant who benefited from the new policy will be released on parole and commit some horrendous offense somewhere in the county?”

Tom Higgins
La Verne

The writer was running against Steve Cooley for Los Angeles County district attorney at the time.