Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Proposition 36: Initiative would change sentences for some repeat offenders

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Next month, when voters go to the polls, they’ll consider altering one of California’s most famous laws—Three Strikes. Proposition 36 would change who qualifies for a life in prison sentence based on their past crimes. And would open up the door for resentencing for some 3,200 current inmates.

Three Strikes came out of a particular era in California. Polly Klass was murdered by Richard Allen Davis in 1993, a time when crime rates were at their peak in California and around the country. Since then, they have declined significantly.

The year before the Polly Klass’ murder, Mike Reynolds’ 18-year-old daughter, Kimber, was killed by a purse-snatcher. 

“They got the purse. And then one of them pulls out a 357 magnum, puts it in her ear, and pulls the trigger," Reynolds recalled. 

Like the man who killed Klass, Kimber’s murderers had long criminal histories; criminal histories, Reynolds said, that should have prevented them from being out on the streets.

“If you don’t know what a person is by the time they’ve had two prior serious and violent convictions, I might suggest you may not be the best judge of character," Reynolds said.

With that in mind, Reynolds crafted a ballot proposition in 1994 that did two things. First, it doubled sentences for a person who committed any felony after previously committing a serious or violent crime. And second, for those who’d committed two serious or violent crimes in the past, a third felony of any kind could mean 25 years to life in prison. Now, there are about 9,000 so called “third strikers” in prison.

“They’re the most active serious and violent offenders we have," Reynolds said.

Still, many are in prison for 25 years to life on things like non-injury child abuse, financial swindles, stealing golf clubs, or in one case, stealing two pairs of kids’ shoes from Ross Dress For Less. By most estimates, more thasn one-third fall into this category. Those kinds of cases have Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley worried.

“The Three Strikes law is a very powerful tool for prosecutors to deal with serious and violent offenders," he said. "But like any law, if it’s overused and abused, it’s possible that we could lose it.”

That’s why Cooley supports Proposition 36, which would require that a third strike be a serious or violent felony, except for those with murder or sex crimes in their histories. Those who commit lesser felonies, who would have previously been sentenced to 25 years to life, will instead have their sentences doubled. 

“So this modest reform will reduce any possibility of attack based upon disparate application of the law throughout California," Cooley says. "And be consistent with our ethics which emphasizes proportionality in sentencing.”

Los Angeles, along with Santa Clara and San Francisco counties, already use the three strikes law this way. Those three counties account for half of the state’s population. But the majority of district attorneys in inland and rural areas say they need three strikes to remain intact. Mike Reynolds explains why.

“All criminals are deterred by one of two things, fear of being caught or fear of being punished," he said.

In big cities like L.A., he said, we have a large, well-funded, well-equipped police force who can respond to crimes and solve them. Other places in the state, meaning places like Fresno, where his daughter was killed, or Petaluma, where Polly Klass died, not so much.

“Rural counties have less enforcement ability," Reynolds said. "Maybe they have small sheriff's departments, small police forces, they are not able to catch criminals as efficiently as a big system in a big city.”

That’s why, he argued, prosecutors need flexibility with the third strike law, to be able to use their discretion and their knowledge of an offender to incapacitate career criminals by locking them up for good. Whether that’s fair, and whether Three Strikes is best left as is, is for the voters to decide.

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