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April 30, 2012

Do capital repeal and three-strikes reform initiatives help or hurt each other in California?

As noted in this prior post, it became official last week that Californians will get a chance to vote this fall on a ballot initiative to repeal the state's death penalty.  In addition, as reported in this effective press story from late last week headlined "Three Strikes Law initiative likely to qualify for Nov. ballot," it also now appears that voters at the same time will have a chance to reform the state's (in)famously harsh three-strikes sentencing law. Here are the basics on that front:

An initiative written by Stanford University professors to scale back California's tough Three Strikes Law has garnered more than 830,000 signatures of support, virtually ensuring the measure will make the November ballot and triggering the state's latest struggle over how harshly criminals should be treated.

California is the only one of the 26 states with three strikes laws to allow prosecutors to charge any felony as a third strike -- and then to lock up the offenders for 25 years to life. The proposed initiative would reserve that penalty for the baddest of the bad, including murderers, rapists and child molesters.

Supporters turned in more than 830,000 signatures to state election officials Thursday -- 504,760 more than needed. They also announced the endorsement of Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley -- a Republican -- marking a crucial step toward a bipartisan coalition.

"The Three Strikes Reform Act is right for California," Cooley said. "It will ensure the punishment fits the crime. Dangerous recidivist criminals will remain behind bars for life, and our overflowing prisons will not be clogged with inmates who pose no risk to public safety."

Under the existing Three Strikes sentencing scheme, offenders who have committed such relatively minor third strikes as stealing a pair of socks, attempting to break into a soup kitchen to get something to eat and forging a check for $146 at Nordstrom have been sentenced to life in prison.

Cooley's support is particularly notable because he has taken a conservative position on two other criminal-justice controversies in California. He opposes a November ballot measure that would scrap the death penalty and has sharply criticized the Legislature's massive "realignment" program, which started in October to relieve prison overcrowding, for effectively reducing the amount of time low-level offenders spend behind bars.

But Mike Reynolds, a Fresno man who helped draft the Three Strikes Law after his daughter was slain in 1992 by two repeat offenders, said prosecutors like Cooley should have more discretion over how to charge anyone with two strikes on their record who commits another felony, no matter how minor. "It's easy if you live in Palo Alto, where Stanford is and where it's safe, to be for this," Reynolds said. "The only question voters need to answer is which of these offenders with at least two serious or violent convictions on their record would you like to have living next door to you? And if you wouldn't want them next door to you, why would you put them next to any California family?"...

The new measure would allow only certain hard-core criminals to be put away for life for any felony offense, including shoplifting, while restricting the third strike to a serious or violent felony for everyone else.  It also does not include changing the rules for second-strikers, which currently call for sentences to be doubled in many cases, even if the second offense is not serious or violent.  Although an effort to alter the law in 2004 required third-strikers whose last offense was nonviolent and nonserious to be resentenced, the new initiative would allow only third-strikers to ask the courts to resentence them.

District attorneys in the Bay Area are expected to support the initiative, though several were noncommittal about it Thursday.  A spokeswoman for Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said she doesn't take a position on pending initiatives. Steve Wagstaffe, San Mateo's top prosecutor, said he would "not be bothered if it won" because it already is extremely rare for his office to seek life sentences for people who commit nonviolent or nonserious offenses, with the exception of sex crimes.

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen said he'll make a final decision after a meeting in June of the California District Attorneys Association.  "I believe the Three Strikes Law should be reformed," Rosen said through a spokesman.  "The Stanford initiative contains some good ideas."...

Advocates predict the savings will prove persuasive, particularly with critical swing voters, though they also plan to frame the campaign in terms of public safety and fairness.  A previous measure in 2004 failed by about 3 percentage points after a last-minute media blitz by then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Gov. Pete Wilson. Brown has declined to comment on the current effort.

Opposition to the new measure is expected to come largely from the Central Valley and parts of Southern California.  The previous measure, Proposition 66, sought to limit felonies that trigger a third strike to violent or serious crimes in every case.

This latest effort to reform California's three-strikes law via inititative is fascinating and worth watching closely in its own right.   But the fact that this reform effort will appear on the ballot (and likely get less attention both nationwide and within California) at the same time as an inititative to repeal yhe state's death penalty adds an extra important (and distorting?) element to the public discourse. 

I can readily imagine some (many? most?) criminal justice reform advocates urging a "yes" vote on both the death penalty repeal and the three-strike reform initiatives. For example, this recent editorial from the San Francisco Examiner, headlined "Time to end the death penalty, reform three-strikes law," wastes little time getting on record support for both initiatives. 

But, as the report above highlights, there is reason to expect some (many? most?) California prosecutors will be fine with the three-strikes reform initiative but will oppose repeal of the death penalty.  In addition, I would not be surprised if some hard-core death penalty abolitionists will express no more than luke-warm support for three-strikes reform if (when?) any polling data suggest that voters may be likely to vote for only one and not both of these sentencing reform proposals.

For a whole bunch of reasons, I do not think these distinct California reform initiative should necessarily stand or fall together.  And yet, I will not be surprised if they do, and I also cannot figure out if this reality makes me extra excited or extra concerned about crime and punishment debates in California over the next sixth months. 

April 30, 2012 at 11:25 AM | Permalink

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Comments

which of these offenders ... would you like to have living next door to you?"

There are a lot of people I wouldn't like living next door to me. That doesn't mean they should be imprisoned for 15 years.

Posted by: anon | Apr 30, 2012 2:49:12 PM

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