Prop 36 Supporters Say It's Time To Amend 'Three Strikes' Law
CAVANAUGH: Our top story has to do with a state proposition on the November ballot that seeks to modify California's three strikes law. Until recently, public support of strict law and order legislation was a given in state politics. But prop thirty-six seems to be bucking that trend with a big lead in the polls. In addition, it's bringing together two most unlikely supporters, both conservative Grover Norquist and liberal George Soros have both come out in support of the measure. Alison St. John prepared this report on how proposition thirty-six would change the law and why. ST. JOHN: Thomas was in her early '20s when she was sentenced to prison for life under the three strikes law. Her third strike was stealing fifteen dollars0 worth of clothes from Mervin's. The Public Defender's Office has tried unsuccessfully to have her sentence reduced. Frank says the law wasn't designed for people like Thomas. NEW SPEAKER: This is probably the most egregious case, where you find 690 people doing Twenty-five years to life for simple drug possession, 181 for receiving stolen property, and that's the part that I don't think the voterses ever had any attention of targeting those people. ST. JOHN: Gary Gibson says prop thirty-six would make the punishment better fit the crime. NEW SPEAKER: The initiative takes away the ability for someone to be incarcerated for Twenty-five to life for a third strike if the new crime is not serious or violent. ST. JOHN: California is under a federal court order to release prisoners for 160,000 to 112,000. By transferring less violent criminals to county jails, the population is now down to 120,000, but that's not enough. The ailing budget is another consideration. With the costs of incarceration being in excess of fifty-thousand dollars a year now, if you're going to incarcerate someone for Twenty-five years to life, and that's it, you have to be there at least Twenty-five year, that's one million dollars and a quarter for one of these sentences minimum. ST. JOHN: Analysts say Prop thirty-six would save ninety million dollars a year for the next 2 decades. They are challenging the old philosophy that anyone who is not tough on crime risks sabotaging their political career. San Diego sheriff bill gore, DA Bonnie Dumanis and chief Matt Jenkins declined to be interfered for the story. NEW SPEAKER: Bonnie has taken the other side and say I believe this law needs to be tweaked. But it's politically not very comfortable for them to come out and say that publicly. And that I think really needs to change. They know there's problems with three strikes. Just come out and say it. ST. JOHN: Dumanis wouldn't comment for this story, but her boss is against it. NEW SPEAKER: There are people who belong in prison to the extent that they're getting out before they should be, 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 our families or anybody in this community then becomes a victim. That's not the answer. ST. JOHN: Mike Reynolds' daughter was murdered twenty years ago. He is the author of the law and fighting is preserve it. He says it should be credited with the drop in crime in California in recent years. But frank courser disputes that. NEW SPEAKER: Throughout the nation there's Twenty-five states that have three strike, Twenty-five that do not. The ones that don't have it enjoyed the same drop in crime as California did without spending a dime. ST. JOHN: Prop thirty-six is not the first time voters have been asked to modify the law, but it is better crafted than a proposition defeated in 2004. It would not automatically release those with a nonviolent third strike. They would have to be resentenced. And anyone with a prior conviction of murder, rape, or child molestation would not be eligible. NEW SPEAKER: The people in law enforcement have a valid perspective, which is that this law has done a lot of good. And it has. And the people on the opposition side are saying, it's done a lot of good, but you've also done some bad. So let's fix the bad and keep the good. ST. JOHN: So far very little money has been raised to defeat the measure. CAVANAUGH: And Alison St. John joins us now in studio. Welcome. ST. JOHN: Glad to be here. CAVANAUGH: And Stewart Henry, professor of criminal justice at San Diego state university school of public affairs. Welcome to the program. HENRY: Thank you. CAVANAUGH: You mentioned that those opposed to prop thirty-six were reluctant to speak publicly about it. Why do you think that is? ST. JOHN: Well, I do think that we have seen politicians rise to positions with their tough on crime stance. And anyone who might be labeled per chance as soft on crime risks sabotaging their own career. So politically speaking, this is a big issue for the state because everybody is acknowledging that we're under federal court order to reduce the prison population, our budget is straining at the seams, and all these people are in prison, yet statement politicians don't seem to feel yet that it's okay for them if they talk about modifying a law like three strikes that people people would accept has thrown a wider net than perhaps people even originally thought. CAVANAUGH: You say that prop thirty-six would not automatically release people serving Twenty-five to life on a nonviolent third strike. What kinds of criminals might be eligible for resentencing if it does pass? ST. JOHN: Well, it's the kind of person whose third strike very there are some very minor third strikes. If you had two prior more serious strikes, the third strike could be very minor. Someone who just shoplifted some clothes from a store, had a possession of a small amount of drugs, petty theft. There are hundreds of people who did go to prison on those federal marijuana third strikes. It's not a huge amount of people who would be affected by this if it were to pass. A couple of thousand. But a couple of thousand people fewer when you're looking at the cost, about one million per prisoner per year to keep them in jail over the period of the Twenty-five years, is really a significant amount of money. So there's two issues, the money issue and the fairness and the justice issue for the people who are perhaps serving longer sentences than they really deserve. CAVANAUGH: And fiam correct, most of the people who are in prison on a three strikes Twenty-five to life sentence with a nonviolent third strike are actually in there for a drug offense. ST. JOHN: It's not necessarily a drug offense. Something like shoplifting would have constituted a third strike. CAVANAUGH: Stewart, if you would, tell us how and when the three strikes law came about in the first place. HENRY: Well, unfortunately we tend to enact legislation and serious changes to our system when there have been major incidents. You'd think a more reasoned approach would be at a time when there's not major issues going on with incidents. And the two incidents that occurred at the time that this went through, which was in 1994, the two incidents that proceeded it were the daughter of Mike Reynolds who was murdered. And most people remember, kidnapped after a slumber party and subsequently strangled. So emotions across those few months prior to this were huge. And Mike Reynolds of a wedding photographer who was a very peaceful guy got really obviously engaged in writing this act. And the issue coincided with one of the highest crime rates that California had witnessed. So you've got these three elements going on that were so important that they drove a vote on proposition 184, which was how this was framed, as Seventy-two percent in favor of the three strikes legislation. But it's because the emotion that's behind that at the time of folks wanting to do something about a habitual offender. We've always had habitual offender laws in the country. Certainly in New York State. And just prior to 1994, one passed in 1993 in the state of Washington. So it wasn't unique to California. What was unique to California was how severe that three strikes law was. It exists if Twenty-five, twenty-six other states. But we have the most severe. CAVANAUGH: I remember people have been sort of complaining this three strikes law for clears now in that it does seem to sweep up some people that perhaps it wasn't originally intended to. Was there something about the way, and this goes to the heart of what proposition thirty-six is seeking to change. Is there something about the way the law is written that sweeps up people who are not the kinds of habitual violent offenders that this law was intended for? HENRY: Right. It goes back to the fact that when we define crimes there is no serious analysis or at least an analysis that's realistic in terms of what counts as a serious offense. So the fact that it is a felony meant as Alison pointed out that we have included petty theft, theft of videotapes, theft of golf clubs, as an offense which would normally bring a much shorter sentence if at all. And the problem is that we've got into a system three strikes which is correctly to the classical philosophy of sentencing, which is that you should get sentences proportionate to the crime. Now what we do is give an additional sentence for an offense regardless of its seriousness. CAVANAUGH: Let me take a phone call from someone who disagrees I think with your point of view, professor. Joe is calling from San Diego. Hi, welcome to the program. ST. JOHN: Hello. I'm a small businessman, and I just want to say that I don't have sympathy if you prey on the weak. I would have -- if you steal a bike, ask the kid who's got his bike stolen. Ask the small businessman who you steal from. You can't get the cops to respond to these crimes. So when these people get caught, they've probably done this one-hundred times. I don't have sympathy for them. I'd have more respect if they tried to rob a bank, you know? They don't deserve the sympathy by preying on the weak. CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much for the call. I appreciate it. You heard what Joe has to say about this. Can you respond? ST. JOHN: Well, I'm not here to argue one way or another, really. CAVANAUGH: Sure. ST. JOHN: He makes a valid point. And I think perhaps a lot of politicians feel like there's a lot of Joes out there who would vote him out of office if they weaken three strikes. And I think really the big question is how many Joes are out there are there, and how many people feel like for budgetary reasons and justice reasons that it is time to not get rid of three strikes but modify it? And it's interesting because the ACLU just did a poll in relation to realignment just this last week to show that more than half of the people who responded to this poll felt like it's time to modify sentencing in ways that would be less to do with putting somebody in prison and more to do with monitoring split sentences where people serve part of their sentence in the community where they don't go straight to prison even before they're sentenced just to be held, that there are a lot of ways in which we're just throwing people behind a locked door and hoping that'll solve the problem. And it's costing a lot of money, and there might be more effective ways to be dealing with crime. The question is will politicians sort of get the message that the voters are changing? Are the voters really changing? I think it's a pivotal time for California. And this initiative will help us see where people are at. CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, you told us the rationale, or what you imagine the rationale must be behind those politicians who don't want to come out publicly either for or against prop thirty-six. What about the politicians who are in favor of prop thirty-six? You mention there are some district attorneys like Steve Cooley in Los Angeles. What is their rationale? ST. JOHN: Well, that poll did show that people in Los Angeles, like seventy-three percent of them, wanted to see changes in the way that sentencing laws are modified. And I think Los Angeles is just overwhelmed. The sheriff is overwhelmed. They realize the current system is not working. And so they have thrown their support behind this initiative. Whereas in San Diego, we're not as overwhelmed with crime, and possibly we have a more conservative political body. It's hard to say. But it did surprise me that Los Angeles will be supporting this, whereas San Diego would not. CAVANAUGH: The polls show prop thirty-six has over 60percent approval statewide. And you also mentioned that the opposition of prop thirty-six hasn't actually raised much money. I'm wondering. Do you see -- does history show us that anything could change between now and election day? ST. JOHN: The last initiative was defeated by a last-minute ad. HENRY: In three weeks. They mounted a campaign to defeat it. It went down to a close vote. It was a close vote. But none the less, it was defeated fifty-three percent to forty-seven percent, and that change was so much more radical than this one. So we don't know if that's going to happen again ST. JOHN: I think if they pursue the same strategy as last time, we've just seen one0hundred thousand dollars to the research policy now, it's possible last-minute money will go into an ad campaign that will put scary criminals on the screen and have the same effect. But I think this initiative has been crafted with lessons learned from that initiative. So it is taking into account some of the problems with it. It's a better-crafted initiative. And we'll see how that goes with the voters. CAVANAUGH: And as I end all of these segments, election day is November 6th. Thank you both very much. HENRY: Thank you.
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.