State Must Reform ‘Three Strikes’ Law

By Steve Cooley

In 1994, California voters overwhelming approved Proposition 184, the “Three Strikes,”‘ which mandated a sentence of 25 years to life imprisonment for anyone convicted of any felony if that per­son had been previously convicted of two or more serious or violent felonies. The law also doubled the penalty for anyone convicted of a felony who had been previously convicted of one serious or violent felony,a second-strike Thousands of recidivists have been Imprisoned under, the second­and third-strike statutory schemes. Some ob­servers credit the declin­ing crime rates in most counties to this recidi­vist sentencing law.

At first, many prosecutors and judges felt “Three Strikes” sentences were mandatory in all qualifying cases, no matter what the nature of the triggering’ felony. In California, many crimes are punishable as felonies but are not labeled as serious or violent by the Penal Code. A second shoplifting offense, writing a bad check for more than $200 and possessing a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use are all felonies that could trigger the 25-years-to-life sentence.

Justices retained discretion

In 1996, the state Supreme Court ruled that judges retained discretion under the law to disregard a prior strike in the, interest of justice and. impose a more appropri­ate sentence on the present offense. As a result, policies and practices changed in some counties. Thus, California has a system that can vary widely and result in inequality depending on the county in which the crime is committed and which court sentences the offender.

Such inequality causes the public to question whether the criminal justice system is actually dispensing evenhanded justice. As a candidate for Los Angeles County district attorney in 1999, I pledged to issue a new “Three Strikes” policy for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. Immediately after being sworn in, I made good on that pledge.

The policy of the L.A. District Attorney’s Office requires’ that if a potential third strike is not a serious or violent felony, it will not be treated as a third-strike case ex­cept in unusual circumstances. It is generally sentenced as a second-strike case.

This policy avoids injustice and abuse in the form of disproportionately harsh sentences of 25 years to life for relatively minor crimes. Since December 2000, prosecutors have implemented this policy and virtually eliminated 25-years-to-life sentences for petty thieves and petty drug offenders. This new policy has worked well and has been well received by law enforcement; the courts and the community at large.

In 2004, voters’ were asked to approve a ballot measure that virtually all law enforcement officials believed would have undercut the “Three Strikes” law. It would have resulted in the wholesale release of thousands of dangerous criminals.

Pre-election opinion polls indicated broad public support for Proposition 66. Only a last minute aggressive public awareness campaign led by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other former California governors defeated the proposition by a close vote of 53% to 47%. Gov. Schwarzenegger has said that he would be interested in fixing problems with the current “Three Strikes” law.

Those who supported Proposition 66 have vowed to continue their efforts to modify or repeal the “Three Strikes” law. There is little doubt that the public wants reasonable and just reform of the law. The Three Strikes Reform Act of 2006 is the joint product of prosecutors, private attorneys and other interested parties working together to ensure a realistic approach to prevent unjust sentencting without compromising the ability to remove serious and dangerous recidivist criminals from our communities. It has already received support from law enforcement. It has also been favorably reviewed by a number of newspapers including The Sacramento Bee, the Las Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Diego Union Tribune, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune and the Orange County Register. State Sen. Gloria Romero has agreed to introduce legislation to place the initiative on the ballot.

The proposed act keeps the present two and “Three Strikes” penalties; keeps the definitions of “serious” and “violent” felonies; and provides that current strikes must be either serious or violent felonies or from specific crime categories, such as certain sex offenses, large quantity drug offenses, crimes ;where the defendant uses a firearm, was armed or intended to cause great bodily injury to another person.

Apply for resentencing

Current third-strike prisoners whose triggering felony would not qualify for a 25-years-to-life sentence. would be eligible to apply for resentencing at the court’s discretion as a second-strike offender.

The criminal. justice system needs to retain the beneficial provisions of the “Three Strikes” law. However, the state should not allow the misallocation of limited penal resources by having life prison sentences for those who do not pose a serious criminal threat to society.

Punishment should fit the crime: California can assure public safety and achieve the interests of justice in all counties and courts with The Three Strikes Reform Act of 2006.