Justin Pritchard – AP
04 July 2004
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is opposing a November ballot proposition that would reform the state’s tough “three-strikes” sentencing law. It could be a formidable obstacle for supporters of Proposition 66, which has fared well in early polling but will face a battering challenge from tough-on-crime opponents who warn thousands of violent felons would return to the streets.
It’s not yet clear, however, just how fixed the popular governor will be on the issue in a presidential election year and a November ballot freighted with 13 other initiatives.
Indeed, Schwarzenegger used an adviser to publicly announce his position at a convention of California prosecutors this week, and he hasn’t promised to campaign formally against the proposition – though its opponents certainly hope he will.
“It’s extraordinarily positive to have such a popular governor helping us oppose the initiative,” said Mike Reynolds, a Fresno resident whose daughter’s 1992 murder was a seminal moment in California’s original three-strikes movement.
Reynolds and other opponents say the proposition would gut current law and release thousands of rapists and killers.
Supporters of Proposition 66 say it restores justice to the 1994 law by requiring that a convicted felon be eligible for the maximum 25-years-to-life sentence only if the third offense is “violent or serious.”
Both sides agree that the proposition would release about 25,000 felons. Opponents categorize those people as hardened convicts eager for another victim while reform supporters say they are small-time crooks – shoplifters and harmless junkies among them – held hostage by a lock-’em-up-at-any-cost mentality.
Despite his tough-guy persona, Schwarzenegger hasn’t made crime policy a linchpin of his administration. Still, during his campaign last year he supported current three-strikes law.
On Tuesday, his legal affairs secretary, Peter Siggins, told about 200 applauding members of the California District Attorneys Association that Schwarzenegger opposed the proposition.
“I expect you’re going to see him make sure that this flawed measure doesn’t make it on the books,” association Executive Director Dave LaBahn said Thursday.
The governor related his opposition privately about a month ago, LaBahn said.
Siggins didn’t returns phone calls and Schwarzenegger’s office wouldn’t comment.
Proposition supporters said the announcement didn’t surprise them, and didn’t mean much.
“I don’t think that’s a big factor,” said Joe Klaas, a lead proponent of reforming the law. Klaas is also the grandfather of the Petaluma schoolgirl whose murder by a paroled repeat criminal helped the public support the original three-strikes proposition in 1994.
“It’s amazing that he supports something where he could save so much money by no longer putting petty criminals behind bars for 25 years to life,” he said.
While Schwarzenegger’s opposition is important, how big an issue he makes of it matters even more, according to several political analysts.
“Everyone is trying to get his endorsement,” said Mark DiCamillo, whose Field Poll last month pegged support for three-strikes reform at over 70 percent. “I’m not sure he’s going to invest that amount of political capital in any one of these.”
DiCamillo acknowledged, however, that even the 3-1 margin the proposition enjoyed in his poll could be surmounted – and even has precedent in California’s recent ballot initiative history – if Schwarzenegger is a visible opponent.
Still, there are limits.
Schwarzenegger is already vocally against two tribal gambling initiatives, is a featured speaker at this summer’s Republican National Convention and in demand by individual candidates begging for him to boost their stock. In other words, time is a factor.
“He’s a weightlifter and a superhero and all,” said Mark Petracca, a political science professor at UC Irvine, “but we all have limits.”