Originally published October 4, 2012 at 6 a.m., updated October 4, 2012 at 2:29 p.m.
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.
Alison St. John, KPBS News
Stuart Henry, Director, SDSU School of Public Affairs
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.”
“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.