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Prop 36 Supporters Say It’s Time To Amend ‘Three Strikes’ Law

Evening Edition

Above: California’s Three Strikes law passed in 1994. Attempts to modify it have failed, partly because advocating against a “tough on crime” approach has been political suicide. But KPBS reporter Alison St John says Proposition 36 on the November ballot would tweak the Three Strikes law at a time when California is being forced to cut the prison population and its budget.

Aired 10/4/12 on KPBS News.

Proposition 36 on the November ballot would tweak the "Three Strikes" law at a time when California is being forced to cut the prison population and its budget.

Transcript

KPBS Evening Edition

Stuart Henry, Three Strikes Law

Above: Stuart Henry, the director of the SDSU School of Public Affairs, talks to KPBS about Proposition 36 to amend the "Three Strikes" law.

Aired 10/4/12 on KPBS Midday Edition.

GUESTS

Alison St. John, KPBS News

Stuart Henry, Director, SDSU School of Public Affairs

Transcript

Three Cecelias: Ulsula Thomas' mother, her 18 year old daughter and her granddaughter. None of them has seen Ulsula since she was sentenced to state prison 17 years ago on a third strike of stealing clothes from Mervyns.
Enlarge this image

Above: Three Cecelias: Ulsula Thomas' mother, her 18 year old daughter and her granddaughter. None of them has seen Ulsula since she was sentenced to state prison 17 years ago on a third strike of stealing clothes from Mervyns.

Ulsula Thomas was in her early 20s when she was sentenced to state prison for life under California’s "Three Strikes" law. She is 42 years old now, but her mother, her 18-year-old daughter and her granddaughter have not seen her since she left.

Thomas’ third strike, the trigger that sent her to prison, was stealing clothes worth about $150 from Mervyns. Her prior strikes were armed burglary, though her mother, Cecelia Marr, says she was only armed with a screwdriver. The Public Defenders Office has tried unsuccessfully to have her sentence reduced.

Frank Courser, a member of a group called Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes, or FACTS, is passionate about modifying Three Strikes.

“What’s most egregious,” he said, "is where you find 690 people doing 25 years to life for simple drug possession, 385 for shop lifting, 180 for receiving stolen property. I don’t think the voters ever had the intention of targeting those people.”

Gary Gibson, an adjunct professor with California Western School of Law, says Proposition 36 is designed to make the punishment better fit the crime.

“The initiative takes away the ability for someone to be incarcerated for 25 years to life," he said, "for a 'third strike,' if their new crime is not serious and not violent.“

Gibson said about a quarter of California’s prison inmates are now second or third strikers.

This is important because California is under a federal court order to reduce the prison population from more than 160,000 to no more than 112,000 prisoners by 2013. By transferring nonviolent criminals to county jails, the prison population is now down to less than 120,000. But a panel of federal judges has ruled that the deadline will not be delayed.

California’s ailing budget is another consideration.

“With the cost of incarceration being in excess of $50,000 a year now,” Gibson said, “if you’re going to incarcerate someone for 25 years to life, you’re looking at a million or more for somebody with one of these sentences.”

California’s Legislative Analyst says Prop 36 would save California between $70 to $90 million a year for the next two decades.

New fiscal and legal realities are challenging the old political philosophy that anyone who could be labeled as not “tough on crime” risks sacrificing his political career.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and District Attorney Steve Cooley are among those who support Prop 36.

But law enforcement groups like the Deputy Sheriffs Association of San Diego County, California Police Chiefs Association and California State Sheriff's Association have officially taken a position against the proposition. In San Diego, Sheriff Bill Gore, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and Chief of Probation Mack Jenkins all have declined to be interviewed on Prop 36 for this story.

Courser said he thinks that need to change.

“Bonnie Dumanis has actually personally taken me aside,“ Courser said, “and said, ‘Frank, this law needs to be tweaked,’ but it’s politically not very comfortable for them to come out and say that publicly.”

Dumanis would not comment for this story on Prop 36 but her boss, San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, is against it.

“There are people who belong in prison,” Roberts said, “We don’t need another victim. I don’t want to have to visit families or deal with people who are on the streets when they shouldn’t be. That you or I or anybody in this community becomes a victim, that’s not the answer. “

Mike Reynolds, a Fresno man whose daughter was murdered 20 years ago this year, is the author of the Three Strikes law. He is fighting to preserve it, and said it should be credited with the drop in crime in California in recent years.

But Courser disputes that.

“Throughout the nation,” Courser said, “25 states have three strikes, 25 do not. Those 25 states that do not have enjoyed the same drop in crime as California did, but without spending a dime.”

Prop 36 is not the first time California voters have been asked to modify Three Strikes. Prop 66 was defeated in 2004 after Governor Schwarzenegger appeared in last minute ads that painted a picture of dangerous felons being released onto the streets.

But Gibson said Prop 36 is better crafted. It would not automatically release those with a nonviolent third strike: they would have to be re-sentenced. Anyone with a prior conviction of murder, rape or child molestation will not be eligible.

“Law enforcement have a very valid perspective,” Gibson said, “which is: this law has done a lot of good - and without a doubt it has. But it’s done some bad and the proponents of the initiative are saying, 'yes, you’ve done a lot of good, but you’ve also done some bad, so let’s fix the bad and keep the good.’”

So far, only about $100,000 has been raised to defeat the initiative, while $1.7 million is being spent in support of it.

However, there’s no telling if a last minute barrage of negative ads might be released, with funding from the Prison Guards' Union, as happened in 2004, to try to maintain the status quo.

Comments

Avatar for user 'rightor1'

rightor1 | October 5, 2012 at 1:07 a.m. ― 1 year, 6 months ago

This law benefits only law enforcement labor unions. It is long past the time when it should have been amended, but it seems that most of the lawmakers are puppets for CCPOA. It was a huge lie from the very beginning and no other state arrests people for any minor reason whatsoever. For example, stealing a watermelon in a field where they lay rotting is a felony so it doesn't take long for young people especially to be convicted of three crimes that aren't really crimes. It is un-American to make up one-size-fits-all laws and steal billions of dollars from our human services and education budgets to pay for the revenge industry. We should not be seeking revenge or a way to overpay people with very little education to punish non-violent offenders especially at a cost of about $1 million each over their lifetime. It serves no social or penological interest. Yes on Prop 36 but the law needs to be thrown out altogether.

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Avatar for user 'HarryStreet'

HarryStreet | October 6, 2012 at 2:38 p.m. ― 1 year, 6 months ago

The 3 strikes law sounded good when it came out, but it never managed the gray areas (and there were plenty!). It's about time it's amended.

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Avatar for user 'philosopher3000'

philosopher3000 | October 22, 2012 at 3:18 p.m. ― 1 year, 5 months ago

This whole section is about politics:
KPBS just posted this on their facebook page!!!

"With election day just around the corner, we wanted to give you a friendly reminder that our community guidelines ask you to refrain from posting political solicitations on our Facebook wall. Thanks!"

WTF - are you telling me Corporations can buy "underwriting statements" (ADVERTISING) on Public Media, But citizens in the public can't vent their opinion on the Public Radio facebook page! Are you NUTS! (oops was that a political statement?)

https://www.facebook.com/KPBSSanDiego

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