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Proposition 36 Three Strikes 

In South L.A., former prisoners hope voters will soften law

Thursday, Nov 1 2012
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L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley tried to convince dozens of California DA's to soften 
    their approach to third-strike cases.

L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley tried to convince dozens of California DA's to soften their approach to third-strike cases.

Trevon Wilson won't be voting on Tuesday. He can't — he's on parole.

"They don't want me to vote," he says, although he wishes he could. "I do believe there's a gang of good stuff on the ballot."

For instance, there's the small matter of re-electing President Barack Obama. There are Jerry Brown's and Molly Munger's two huge warring tax hikes, Propositions 30 and 38. And there's Proposition 34, which would repeal the death penalty.

But most important to Wilson is Proposition 36, which would soften California's three-strikes law so that nonviolent and less serious offenses would no longer count as third strikes. Voters seem amenable, with the most recent poll showing 63 percent support.

The Nov. 6 outcome could someday affect Wilson directly, since he already has two strikes.

Wilson lives in Watts, on the outskirts of Nickerson Gardens, the largest housing project west of the Mississippi River. It's a collection of more than 150 cream-colored, box-shaped apartments with dark orange security doors — and new security cameras, paid for by federal stimulus money, that directly link to an LAPD monitoring system.

Wilson's clothes are perfectly monochromatic: black do-rag, spotlessly white extra-large T-shirt, extra-large black Dickies shorts reaching down to his shins, black sneakers with the shoelaces untied.

The only color comes from a pink iPod Nano he holds gingerly with his right hand; with his left, he pushes a small Razor scooter back and forth, like a child's toy. His demeanor is calm and carefree — when he recalls his last 13 years, it's matter-of-factly, almost with detachment, as if that were someone else, someone he once knew.

When Wilson was 16, he was arrested for a string of armed robberies — mostly liquor stores and hole-in-the-wall bodegas. The out-of-control boy was set to be tried as an adult, but he pled no contest to 11 counts of robbery and 11 gun charges. The robberies counted as one strike and the gun charges counted as a second strike, and he was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

He ended up doing 10 years in a smattering of California prisons — Delano, Pleasant Valley, Avenal and finally an Arizona state prison, thanks to the California prison system's overcrowding. Three years ago, Wilson was released. He was 26.

While in prison, Wilson met a number of people who "struck out." That is, they were convicted of two violent crimes, followed by a third felony conviction that was sometimes for a minor or nonviolent crime. He actually did some time with an uncle of his, whose third strike was conspiracy to manufacture drugs. He met a man whose third strike, he says, was property damage.

"This one dude I met on the yard," Wilson remembers, "he threw a brick at a window. And they struck him out."

He can cite another example: "Terrorist threats" — often used to prosecute people who threaten to kill bosses, family members or friends. Wilson sees that as "pretty petty stuff. You'd be surprised."

One person who isn't surprised is Michael Romano, who co-founded the Stanford Three Strikes Project, which represents inmates doing life for third-strike offenses.

"California's three-strikes law is by far the harshest sentencing law in the county," Romano says. "It's the only place you can get a life sentence for a misdemeanor, like shoplifting socks or possession of a joint of marijuana" — although such third-strike convictions are atypical.

Proposition 184, aka the three-strikes law, was approved by voters in 1994, when the murder rate statewide was double what it is now. In then–blood-soaked L.A., it was triple.

By 2010, violent crime had plummeted in the vast majority of U.S. cities — setting off intense debates over the catalyst, and prompting many police chiefs to claim that his or her brand of crime-fighting was the reason.

There were fewer than 300 homicides in L.A. that year, compared with 1,000 in 1992.

Eighteen years ago, it was two murders in particular that pushed voters over the edge. The first was Kimber Reynolds, an 18-year-old shot to death by a prison parolee trying to steal her purse.

Kimber's dad, Michael Reynolds, made it his mission to pass a "three strikes and you're out" law. His idea was to double the sentence for a criminal's second violent offense; for the criminal's third conviction, violent or not, he or she would receive 25 years to life. That's the same mandatory sentence, in California, as first-degree murder.

Reynolds has little sympathy for a criminal whose third conviction is nonviolent or even petty. For him, twice a violent criminal, always a violent criminal.

"These are high-level offenders that just happen to be caught in low level," he says. "They should be put away."

When the state Legislature rejected his law, Reynolds started a campaign to gather signatures and put the matter before voters.

Proposition 184 might never have passed were it not for a second gruesome and highly publicized crime, the slaying of 12-year-old Polly Klaas.

Klaas was hosting a slumber party at her mom's house when she was kidnapped at knifepoint and strangled to death by an intruder, parolee Richard Allen Davis.

Davis had been arrested countless times, for everything from burglary to sexual assault. In addition to murder and kidnapping, Davis was convicted of committing a "lewd act" on Klaas.

A horrified California electorate passed Reynolds' measure in a landslide, with 72 percent of the vote.

"If you go back and look at the original ballot language of Proposition 184, it was intended to target rapists and child molesters," Romano insists.

Reynolds argues that Proposition 184 worked: Eighteen years later, crime is down dramatically. But crime is down all over the country, and in many parts of the world. California prisons, meanwhile, are so overcrowded that the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered the state to transfer or release more than 30,000 felons.

Under three strikes, nearly 9,000 people have been convicted of a third strike and sentenced to life. About 3,000 of these would be able to seek resentencing from a new judge under Proposition 36.

Amidst the dropping crime rate in 2004, California voters narrowly rejected Proposition 66, which would have significantly softened the three-strikes law.

By then, Trevon Wilson was five years into his sentence.

He remembers standing in the yard at Pleasant Valley State Prison in the early evening on Election Night, near the "lifer building," a part of the prison complex that housed inmates doing life sentences.

Inside, they were watching the election returns on the nightly news.

"At night, [Proposition 66] was winning, " he says. "People was making noise, they was screaming, 'Wooooooo!'

"When we woke up the next morning, they was quiet. Their heads was down. It was a big disappointment. "

Proposition 36 is a more moderate approach than the failed Proposition 66.

Proposition 36 would apply to criminals whose prior strikes are for offenses not on a long, official list of serious crimes that includes murder, rape and child molestation.

"It's a modest reform," says Romano, which may explain why it's been endorsed by former LAPD Chief Bill Bratton, current chief Charlie Beck and Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley — who opposed Proposition 66.

Cooley has long been a critic of the three-strikes law. Shortly after taking office in 2000, he announced that his office would not apply it in criminal cases where the third offense was nonviolent.

Cooley has tried but failed to convince dozens of other elected district attorneys in California to adopt his approach. Proposition 36 would force them to follow the same rules.

"It's one of the few times where a [proposed] statewide policy has been tested over a long period of time," Romano says.

Michael Reynolds, however, remains unconvinced:

"What voters should ask themselves is, should a twice-convicted, serious or violent offender be sentenced to life upon conviction of a third felony? Or should they allowed to commit a third serious, violent offense? How many victims need to be part of this criminal therapy?"

As for Trevon Wilson, he says he's left his criminal past long behind, despite the fact that he's unemployed.

"Nobody wanna hire me," he says. "Too many felonies."

He hopes that voters will change the state's three-strikes law.

"Wrong is wrong," Wilson says. "If you do a violent crime, you should go away. But taking a candy bar?"

Reach the writer at haron@laweekly.com

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