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Man With a Mission 

When Mike Reynolds — the author of “three strikes” and “10-20-Life” — proposes, the state Legislature disposes

Wednesday, Nov 25 1998
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AP/Wide WorldAs Mike Reynolds and I enter his rambling Fresno home, he gestures for me to take a seat in one of the several antique barber chairs that furnish his living room. Then the founding father of California’s 1994 "three strikes" law steps over to his VCR and pops in a 30-second "prevention video" about the new legislation he conceived and spearheaded into law late last year: AB 4, the "10-20-Life" bill. The video, he tells me, features Alan Autry, a fellow Fresno resident and the actor who played the cop Bubba in the TV show In the Heat of the Night.

The public-service spot begins with the wail of a police siren as Autry suddenly appears in front of some police cars with their cherry tops flashing. "California has just begun enforcing the toughest law in the land on criminals who use guns," Bubba intones. "So if you know a punk with a gun who thinks he’s tough, let him know this law is tougher. If you’re 14 years old or older, and you pull a gun to commit a crime, you’re going to get an extra 10 years. If you pull the trigger, you’re going to get an extra 20. And if you shoot someone — live or die — you’re going to spend the rest of your life in prison." Then the offscreen voice of an announcer fades in: "‘10-20-Life’ — the law is here," he says to the reverberations of a jail-cell door clanging shut.

"I’ve got tapes in Spanish, too," Reynolds informs me as he slides a second version of the same message into the VCR, this one showing grainy surveillance videos of actual armed robberies in progress, and ending with Bubba saying, "Use a gun and you’re done."

"If these had been produced by a commercial firm, it would have cost close to $100,000," says Reynolds, a self-employed wedding photographer who’s become California’s most successful citizen-activist since Howard Jarvis shoved Proposition 13 down the throats of Jerry Brown and the state Legislature in 1978. "But we did them for nothing. And they’ll run all over the state as soon as funding comes through. Requests have been made" — with accompanying letters from Governor Pete Wilson, Attorney General Dan Lungren and Secretary of State Bill Jones — "asking all the major TV stations to run the tapes for free. But," Reynolds adds, "almost nobody is airing them. In L.A. we’ve even had [District Attorney] Gil Garcetti walk us into TV stations, but nothing’s worked. So what we have to do is make a buy."

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At 54, Reynolds, a short, bald, big-bellied man, is full of such grand ideas, which he will promulgate, unsolicited, at a moment’s notice. Unlike most big talkers, however, Reynolds delivers. To make the videos, for example, he persuaded a small local production company to shoot the commercial for free, and got Autry to recite the script Reynolds himself had written.

During the past six years now, such issues have not just been Mike Reynolds’ crusade; they’ve been his obsession — ever since the murder of his 18-year-old daughter, Kimber. In the summer of 1992, as she was opening her car door outside a fashionable Fresno restaurant called the Daily Planet, two men on a stolen gray Kawasaki motorcycle pulled up next to her and grabbed at her purse. When she resisted, one of them shot her dead in the head with a .357 Magnum.

Since then, a video of her death has been playing endlessly in Reynolds’ head, compelling him, as he puts it, to "sweep the criminal garbage off the streets." The passage of both the "10-20-Life" law and California’s "three strikes" statute are living testaments to the depth of his commitment.

Mike Reynolds’ "three strikes" law is distinguished from those of other states by its imposition of a radical form of preventive detention that locks up often young, often nonviolent petty criminals for decades. ("During the time," Reynolds points out, "when they would have, or easily could have, committed violent crimes.") Today, more than 35,000 inmates — almost one-quarter of California’s prison population — are currently doing time on second and third strikes. Over 80 percent of those now serving ä 25-to-life on a third strike are doing so for a nonviolent crime — for stealing a pair of sunglasses, say, or possessing a small amount of drugs, or writing a bad check.

"10-20-Life" is equally draconian. Under its provisions, just as Bubba tells it in the TV spot, anyone pulling a gun during the commission of a crime will have an additional 10-year "enhancement" tacked on to whatever sentence would have been handed down for the actual crime. And, like the "three strikes" law, "10-20-Life" mandates that the individual circumstances of a crime not be taken into account by judges, resulting in throw-away-the-key sentences. (Judges are forbidden to grant probation or suspend a sentence.) Moreover, the law specifically targets young offenders, who can be labeled gang members under a very lax standard, then found "vicariously liable" for the actions of a companion, even though the accomplice in question did not personally use a gun, or even know that a fellow "gang member" was carrying a gun.

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