There’s No Need to Reform ‘Three Strikes’

From the Times-Herald, April 9, 2006

A recent Associated Press story called attention to a controversial initiative co-sponsored by Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley. This proposal is dubbed the “Three Strikes Reform Act of 2006,” but make no mistake – that description would only be accurate if you think “reform” means letting dangerous criminals out of prison. The reality is that this initiative weakens the most successful public safety tool we have in California, eliminating the discretion that is currently granted to elected district attorneys and judges and potentially releasing thousands of repeat criminals back into our communities.

It is a proposed solution for a problem that doesn’t exist, and it creates huge problems for public safety officials across California. Consider the example of a violent felon who has previous convictions for voluntary manslaughter and attempted murder and is arrested with a loaded semi-automatic handgun, conceivably intending to kill again. Under the current three strikes law, he can be sentenced to prison for life. However, in order to qualify for a three strikes prosecution under Mr. Cooley’s “reform” proposal, that same felon would have to actually use the gun against yet another innocent victim. Is that your idea of reform? It’s not mine.

Since its adoption by the state Legislature and later the electorate in 1994, the three strikes law has had a dramatic impact on crime in California. In fact, over the past 11 years crime in California has dropped at a rate of nearly double the national average. There is no explanation for such a significant decline other than the three strikes law.

The three strikes law grants wide discretion to local district attorneys, and from the beginning we have implemented the law in a manner consistent with local standards. Following a Supreme Court decision in 1996, local and appellate courts have also exercised their discretion in determining which defendants are the “worst of the worst.” Currently, there are 7,813 career criminals spending at least 25 years in prison under three strikes. These habitual offenders are in jail where they belong, not in our neighborhoods committing more crimes and creating more victims.

In Solano County, I have filed 70 three strikes cases, and 64 of those cases have progressed through the courts to sentencing. Thirty-five defendants have received a three strikes sentence, and an additional 17 have received either a two strike or felony sentence. The number of defendants charged under three strikes between 1994 and 2003 in Solano County was less than 0.9 percent of all felons who were prosecuted, and the number of defendants sentenced under three strikes during the same period was less than 0.2 percent of all those who were sent to prison.

Significant to my point that “reform” is unnecessary, this same trend has been documented statewide. Last year, there were only 239 three strikes commitments in the entire state, 1,000 fewer than in 1996. Solano County had only 1, and Los Angeles County had 55. Without a doubt, we are approaching a plateau in the annual number of three strikes sentences. Three strikes has slammed shut what was once a revolving door for career criminals.

Now, in a desperate attempt to justify his proposal, Los Angeles District Attorney Cooley claims that other elected DAs and judges have abused their discretion in prosecuting and sentencing defendants under the current three strikes law. In response, DAs from across the state have repeatedly challenged Mr. Cooley to provide an example of a case he considers to be an abuse of either prosecutorial or judicial discretion. Notably, he has never been able to cite even a single case.

Nonetheless, the myth continues to prevail over truth in most of the articles and editorials about the three strikes law. There is no “pizza thief” who was sentenced to life in prison under three strikes. And, the current offense for the vast majority of three strikes inmates is a serious or violent felony, not a petty crime. During 2003-04, only eight defendants in the entire state were convicted under three strikes with a current petty theft offense and only 17 were convicted for simple drug possession. Moreover, in all of these cases, each of the defendants had a long history of prior serious and/or violent convictions which warranted a three strikes punishment. Why should the public have to wait until there is another victim before locking these career criminals up for life?

Los Angeles DA Cooley stands alone among the state’s prosecutors in support of his initiative. The California District Attorneys Association, representing the 58 elected DAs and almost 3000 deputy prosecutors, voted overwhelmingly to oppose the “Three Strikes Reform Act of 2006,” as well as a second ill-conceived initiative proposed by one of Cooley’s deputies, and Senate Bill 1642, a legislative version of Cooley’s initiative that was introduced by Los Angeles area State Senator Gloria Romero.

Prosecutors throughout California know that the three strikes law works. So do victims and others who value safe neighborhoods and safe streets. They voted for the three strikes law in 1994, and in 2004 they voted to retain it. Three strikes has resulted in more than 2 million fewer victims of crime, along with savings of billions of dollars in the societal impact costs of crime. Californians recognize that prosecutors and courts are exercising their discretion and using three strikes in precisely the way it was intended – protecting the people of California from repeat victimization by repeat offenders.

Please join me and California’s other elected DAs, the California District Attorneys Association, and virtually every law enforcement organization throughout the state in opposing any attempt to undermine and weaken our three strikes law.

David W. Paulson
Solano County District Attorney
Immediate Past President, California District Attorneys Association