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A New Umpire 

Reforming the state’s three-strikes law

Thursday, Oct 21 2004
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WITH FEAR OF CRIME in the air and the state on edge after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, 18-year-old Kimber Reynolds left class at an L.A. fashion school to spend the weekend in the comfort and safety of her hometown, Fresno. Walking out of a restaurant there, she was confronted by two men with criminal records who tried to grab her purse. When she resisted, one of them shot her in the head.

Her grieving father responded by changing history. He pushed for a law that would forever put away violent repeat offenders like the men who killed his daughter.

Lawmakers with ambition for higher office saw opportunity in what Mike Reynolds began calling Three Strikes and You’re Out. With $350,000 donated from the personal fortune of Congressman Michael Huffington (still husband, at the time, of Arianna, and in need of some populist outrage to boost his Senate campaign), and with political leadership from Fresno Assemblyman Bill Jones (grasping for some law-and-order credentials in his run for secretary of state), Reynolds got Three Strikes through the Legislature in 1994. Then he did it all over again a few months later with a ballot measure that got 72 percent of the vote from frightened Californians, and put the law out of the reach of meddling legislators.

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A decade later the fear of crime, and the willingness of politicians to exploit it, is still with us. But voters may be ready to adjust some of the landmark criminal-sentencing scheme’s excesses with this year’s Proposition 66.

As it stands on the books, Three Strikes boosts the penalty for anyone convicted of a felony who has previously committed a violent or serious crime. That second felony gets the criminal double the sentence he would have gotten otherwise. But the third conviction simply has to be a felony of any kind to carry a sentence of 25 years to life. It doesn’t have to be violent or serious, like the first two do. That’s how Jerry DeWayne Williams could be sent away for stealing a slice of pizza at the Redondo pier, and how Leandro Andrade, who never was convicted of a crime of violence, could get life for stealing videotapes.

Proposition 66, if it passes November 2, will require that the third strike be for only a violent felony. A simple drug conviction wouldn’t be enough for a life sentence. Neither would pizza swiping.

Los Angeles County produces a third of the state’s criminal convictions, and when Three Strikes became law 10 years ago, the county started pumping out so many 25-to-life sentences that the Superior Court had to reorganize just to process them all.

But the state’s largest county suddenly became its most enlightened sentencer when Republican Steve Cooley was elected district attorney in 2000. Cooley shocked political observers by insisting that his prosecutors go after third-strike sentences only when the most recent offense was serious or violent. No one in L.A. was to be locked up forever for stealing a pizza slice or a videotape.

Bill Jones, who did get elected secretary of state and now has his sights set on the U.S. Senate, summoned his fellow Republican to Sacramento to dress him down for being soft on crime. Cooley wouldn’t budge.

So now, a version of Cooley’s policy is set to go statewide. “To a certain extent, it does embrace my philosophy,” Cooley acknowledged. But he is dead set against it.

The D.A. claims Proposition 66 goes too far by eliminating street-gang crimes, residential burglaries, some assaults and other crimes from the roster of offenses that count as strikes. Serial rapists charged with multiple counts would face only a single strike.

The law should indeed be changed, Cooley says, but only up to the point it matches his policy in Los Angeles County. If Prop. 66 passes, he said, people now in prison on a third strike that resulted from a residential burglary when no one was home will have to be released. In L.A., he said, that means 1,452 people. Count second-strikers now in prison on doubled terms, and 18,000 convicted criminals will hit the streets of Los Angeles County in coming months.

“I’m going to predict a dramatic increase in crime,” Cooley said. “This is the biggest threat to public safety I’ve seen in my 30-year career.”

As for Williams, the pizza stealer, Cooley pointed out that he never actually was sentenced to 25 to life, and is out on the street now.

The political landscape surrounding the initiative is disorienting. Remember that the Kimber Reynolds murder put Three Strikes on the map, but the public took hold of it only after a second crime so horrifying it seemed the stuff of horror movies or adolescent campfire stories. But it was true. Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old Petaluma girl, was enjoying a slumber party with her friends when real-life monster Richard Allen Davies, twice convicted of kidnapping, grabbed her, raped her and murdered her.

Mike Reynolds recruited the little girl’s father, Marc Klaas, to back his Three Strikes effort. But Klaas campaigned against the initiative, saying it wasn’t properly targeted. He later pressed for a reform initiative to require that the third strike be for a violent crime, but it went nowhere.

Ten years later, backers of Proposition 66 tried to get Klaas on board with their version of Three Strikes reform, but he says the initiative goes too far the other way. Polly’s grandfather, though, Joe Klaas, is fighting for the reform measure.

He is introduced at pro-66 rallies that feature people who backers unabashedly call “victims” — distraught families of third-strike convicts who are in jail long-term for committing nonviolent crimes.

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