Vote on ‘Three Strikes’ Likely

A ballot measure aiming to reform the sentencing law has ample signatures.

By Jim Sanders — Bee Capitol Bureau – (Published April 15, 2004)

A campaign to amend California’s “three-strikes” law to prohibit nonviolent felonies from triggering lifetime prison sentences appears headed for the ballot.

Citizens Against Violent Crime, the group spearheading the drive, submitted to elections officials Wednesday nearly 700,000 petition signatures, far more than the 373,816 needed to qualify for the November ballot.

The effort is led by Joe Klaas, grandfather of Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old Sonoma County girl kidnapped from her bedroom during a slumber party and killed by parolee Richard Allen Davis in October 1993.

Klaas said the new measure would improve the “three-strikes” law by toughening penalties for child molesters while eliminating the possibility that criminals will spend the rest of their lives in prison for crimes as minor as stealing pizza.

“We’ll make sure violent criminals pay for their crimes,” Klaas said. “But we’ll quit paying to give life sentences – including geriatric care – to petty criminals and shoplifters. We’re just not going to do that anymore.”

Convicts sentenced to prison terms of 25 years or more for relatively minor crimes include Gary Albert Ewing, who stole $1,197 worth of golf clubs, and Leandro Andrade, a repeat burglar who stole $153 worth of videotapes.

The ballot proposal is fiercely opposed by various law enforcement groups, tough-on-crime organizations and by Klaas’ son, Marc, the father of Polly, whose death helped spur public support for creation of the “three-strikes” law in 1994.

“I think the ‘three-strikes’ law seems to be working quite well, thank you,” said Marc Klaas, founder of the KlaasKids Foundation, dedicated to fighting crimes against children. “You don’t make society safer by putting creeps back on the street.”

California’s ‘three-strikes’ law imposes longer prison sentences on offenders who have prior convictions for serious or violent crimes.

Prison terms are doubled for anyone who commits a felony offense and has one prior conviction for a serious or violent crime.

Mandatory prison terms of 25 years to life are imposed for a third strike – a conviction of someone with two or more serious or violent crimes on his or her record.

Under current law, the final strike – the offense that triggers the enhanced sentence – must be a felony but need not be a violent one.

The proposed ballot measure would amend the law by:

* Allowing only violent or serious crimes to trigger the stiffer prison sentences.

* Removing some crimes from the list of those deemed serious or violent, including attempted burglary, some arson offenses, and conspiracy to commit assault.

* Permitting no more than one strike to be assessed per conviction. For example, robbing a store and assaulting a clerk could not be counted as two strikes.

* Making the amendments retroactive to March 1994, which could lead to the resentencing of more than 26,000 offenders.

Joe Klaas hailed the ballot measure as the “strongest law to protect children ever put forth” because it would enhance penalties for child molesters.

Opponents counter that the crackdown on molesters is designed to deflect attention from the weakening of the “three-strikes” law.

“How dumb do you think voters are?” said Mike Reynolds, who led the drive to pass a “three-strikes” law after the killing of his daughter, Kimber, by a parolee in 1992.

The proposed ballot measure would mandate prison sentences of six, eight or 12 years for first offenses involving sexual assault of a minor under 14.

Judges would have discretion to sentence first-time offenders to prison terms of 25 years to life if the victim is under age 10.

Second convictions for such offenses would be punishable by terms of 25 years to life.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office said the initiative could lower the state’s prison operating costs by several hundred million dollars a year.

Other criminal justice costs probably would rise, however, ranging from court costs for resentencings to subsequent parole supervision services.