March 7 marks the 10th anniversary of California's "three strikes" law, enacted first by the Legislature and later approved overwhelmingly by voters. It was a response to the 1993 murder of Polly Klaas, the 12-year-old Northern California girl abducted and murdered by Richard Allen Davis, himself a repeat offender who, the law's proponents argued, would have been locked up and Polly still alive had the law been in place earlier.
The law's author was Bill Jones, who's after Sen. Barbara Boxer's job and touting three strikes' success as a lure for voters. (Jones and former Governor Pete Wilson made a stop in San Diego the day before the primaries.)
To voters a decade ago, the basic provisions of the three-strikes law made sense: a second conviction for a serious or violent felony carried with it prison time double what sentencing guidelines may have dictated for that crime. A third conviction meant a person could be sent to prison for 25 years to life.
Strike three casts a wide net-some argue far too wide. A person who has two prior strikes could be sent to prison for 25 years to life for anything deemed a felony, whether it be shoplifting or minor drug possession-crimes that would otherwise be misdemeanors. Under three strikes, prosecutors have the power to declare misdemeanors strike-worthy felonies, and because three strikes imposes mandatory sentencing guidelines, judges' hands are tied when it comes to deciding whether the punishment indeed fits the crime.
While two-dozen other states have some sort of three-strikes law in place, California's is by far the strictest. Since the law was enacted, California's seen its prison population increase dramatically; it's estimated that currently 42,703 people are locked up for second or third strikes. A study by the U.S. Department of Justice conducted a few years after California's three-strikes law was enacted found the state poorly equipped to handle the increased prison population the law spawned. Proponents say that California's seen a significant drop in crime since three strikes was enacted-as much as 40 percent. Though states without three-strikes laws have likewise seen similar crime reduction.
The group Families to Amend California's Three Strikes (FACTS) has compiled on its website a roster of roughly 150 three-strikes offenders, including their past convictions and what they ultimately did to get called out. There's the guy who was caught lifting a $70 drill from Sears; another guy got nabbed for stealing a pack of T-shirts; someone else was called out on strikes for completing a false DMV application. (FACTS says it verifies the information they collect on three-strike offenders through court records.) In 2002, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that a man given two 25-year life sentences for stealing videotapes from K-Mart was hit with a sentence "grossly disproportionate" to his crime.
Strikes are also retroactive, which means someone can be given a second or third strike based on a crime committed before the law was enacted. A further glitch in the system is the fact that juvenile crimes can be considered strikes if the individual was 16 or older when the crime was committed.
A study by the Justice Policy Institute found that black people are saddled with third strikes 13 times the rate of white folks. People who can't afford decent legal assistance are likewise disproportionately struck out. In one San Diego case, a 22-year-old father was given a 40-year, third-strike sentence based on questionable evidence. Defending him was an attorney who had been suspended five times by the California Bar Association-something the convicted man didn't find out until after his sentence was handed down.
Currently, a coalition of three-strikes opponents are gathering signatures for a November ballot measure that would revise the three-strikes law. The initiative, if passed, would count only violent offenses and serious felonies as strikes-the way the law was intended to work in the first place. The initiative also would allow for conditional re-sentencing of people currently locked up under the three-strikes law.
This won't be the first attempt to revise the law. In 1998, a bill authored by state Sen. John Vasconcellos sought to limit the three-strikes law to violent and serious felonies only. The bill made it through the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Wilson. We hope this attempt to make the three-strikes law a fairer one-and one that more closely resembles the original intent-succeeds.