State Rethinks Three-Strikes Law ; Proposed Initiatives in California Would Give Judges More Leeway in Sentencing

By Daniel B. Wood writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 28, 2006 | Go to article overview

State Rethinks Three-Strikes Law ; Proposed Initiatives in California Would Give Judges More Leeway in Sentencing


Daniel B. Wood writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


California, the state that launched a national get-tough-on- crime movement with its "three strikes, you're out" measure in 1994, is poised to reconsider whether to ease the stiffest provision of its landmark law: locking up third-time offenders for the rest of their lives.

Two ballot initiatives - both led by Los Angeles area prosecutors - are aiming to put more flexibility in the three-strikes law, in a bid to address concerns that it is imprisoning too many nonviolent criminals at too great a cost to taxpayers. The measures would come before California voters in November if they qualify for the ballot.

"The public has expressed legitimate concerns about [the law's] use against those who commit new, nonviolent, not serious offenses," says Steve Cooley, L.A. County district attorney and coauthor of one of the initiatives, the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2006. "We think that if we don't fix the law, we may lose it to those who would weaken it so much it would lose its teeth."

If Californians were to allow judges more discretion in the sentencing of three-timers, their decision could be felt in about two dozen other states that enacted similar three-strikes laws over the past 13 years. Such an outcome would also intimate that public attitudes may be shifting as citizens evaluate the social and economic costs of harsh sentencing laws.

"California's attempts to revisit three strikes is important nationally because it suggests that the rule of American politics that has been a truism since 1968 - that anything that sounds tougher on crime is a political winner - may be coming less true," says Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles. "The public has become increasingly aware of outrageous injustices in highly publicized, heart-rending cases at the same time they feel the weight of added costs to the system."

The state's three-strikes law was enacted by ballot initiative after the 1993 kidnapping and murder of a schoolgirl, Polly Klaas, by a repeat felon. It aimed to ensure that criminals who had been previously convicted of two "serious" or "violent" crimes would automatically receive a life sentence with no possibility of parole if convicted of a third felony. Under the law, petty theft, such as stealing from a convenience store, could be reclassified as a felony if a person had been convicted of a petty crime before.

If either of the reform measures goes through, "it would likely have a ripple effect for other states in revising sentencing minimums, taking new looks at penalties ... from burglary to drugs - what is serious and what is not," says Jason Ziedenberg, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) in Washington, which seeks alternatives to prison. …

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