Published Friday, Dec. 28, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News

Mercury News

It hasn’t overwhelmed California’s prisons with vast numbers of petty criminals doing life sentences, as critics predicted. Instead, California’s 7-year-old “three strikes, you’re out” law appears to have accomplished the goal its supporters touted: It has targeted the state’s worst repeat offenders and taken them off the streets.

After an initial flurry of convictions, three-strikes prosecutions have declined steadily. The number of these offenders now doing the 25-years-to-life sentences authorized by the law accounts for just 4 percent of inmates.

Critics continue to charge that the law is being used improperly against petty offenders, a claim that is difficult to evaluate across the state. But a Mercury News analysis found little evidence of such overzealousness in a review of three-strikes cases in Santa Clara County.

Of the 181 cases in which a 25-years-to-life sentence was handed down for a non-violent crime, the paper found, 95 percent of the convicts had previously committed multiple violent acts. Prosecutors say that their success in putting away these sorts of felons — the most dangerous of California’s career criminals — means there are fewer hard-core lawbreakers on the street and fewer three-strikes cases.

Based on available data, California seems to have learned to live with its three-strikes law; for that reason, it appears to be here to stay.

There have been some excesses. A federal appeals court last month nullified the three-strikes sentence of Leandro Andrade, a San Bernardino man with a history of burglary who shoplifted $154 worth of videotapes. The case revived a debate over whether non-violent offenders should face extreme sentences.

Among the 26 states with three-strikes laws, California stands alone in not requiring that the third strike be violent. In addition, in this state the non-violent crime of residential burglary can qualify as a first or second strike.

But even those pushing to change the law concede that it has put away many dangerous, chronic lawbreakers.

Gerald Uelmen, a Santa Clara University law professor, says voters probably didn’t understand the full impact of the law when they approved it in 1994, specifically that any third felony can trigger a 25-years-to-life sentence.

“Most voters thought this was directed toward violent criminals and had no idea it would sweep as broadly as it did, to include drug offenders and petty thieves.”

But Uelmen, who continues to oppose the law, concedes: “In terms of taking violent people off the streets, I think it’s had some effectiveness.”

“Three strikes” was signed into law by then Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994, after the murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by violent career criminal Richard Allen Davis. Later that year, it was affirmed by more than 70 percent of the state’s voters. The law states that convicted third-strikers get 25 years to life in state prison, and must serve at least 20 before being eligible for parole.

It also mandates that sentences be doubled for convicted second-strikers.

But the question of which crimes qualify as “strikes” remains controversial.

As it has turned out, residential burglary — not a violent crime — is the second most common third strike, accounting for 11 percent of all cases. Robbery is the most common.