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Group seeks initiative to reform Three Strikes Law

July 3, 2011

By Tracey Kaplan

A coalition led by a group of Stanford University lawyers intends to put an initiative on the November 2012 ballot to reform California’s Three Strikes Law, the harshest such sentencing law in the nation.

The group has secured at least one major financial backer, David W. Mills, a former investment banker and Stanford Law School professor. It also hired San Francisco political consultant Averell “Ace” Smith to lead what is expected to be a fiery campaign.

In addition, the group, including Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project, is courting key Republicans such as Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, at a time when fiscal conservatives have called for prison reform.

The Legislature and voters passed the Three Strikes Law in 1994 after several high-profile murders committed by ex-felons sparked public outrage, including the kidnapping and strangling of 12-year-old Polly Klaas from her home in Petaluma. Since then, the courts have sent more than 80,000 “second-strikers” and 7,500 “third-strikers” to state prison, according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office. As of late 2004, 26 percent of the prison population was serving time under the law.

A previous reform 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.

The language of the new initiative is still being worked out, but at the very least it would limit felonies that trigger the “third” strike to violent or serious crimes. In late 2004, about 3,500 — or just less than half of the third-strikers in prison — had not committed a serious or violent crime.

Under the existing law, people have received life sentences for such crimes 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.

Proponents note that the provision allowing prosecutors to charge any felony as a third strike is the harshest of some 24 similar laws in the nation, and contend it is unjust and a waste of taxpayer dollars. Supporters argue the law has reduced crime and kept the streets safer.

Backers are hopeful the measure will pass this time. One reason is the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that California must drastically reduce its prison population to relieve severe overcrowding; in a majority opinion, the court blamed a series of political decisions in the state during the past 30 years, including “the passage of harsh mandatory minimum and three-strikes laws.”

California’s budget crisis also has thrown into sharp relief the need for the state to re-examine its priorities. The state currently spends 11 percent of its annual budget on prisons and 7.5 percent on higher education. Nonviolent third-strikers are expected to cost the state almost $200 million a year for the next 25 years, according to the state auditor.

The group is aggressively courting Cooley, a Republican who has long called for reforming Three Strikes, but opposed the 2004 initiative because he said it went too far. Cooley has said 25 years to life in prison is the same sentence he gives murderers, calling it “disproportionate” for relatively minor crimes.

Scaling back the law also has the support of some conservatives, including Right on Crime, a criminal justice reform movement whose signatories include Ed Meese, attorney general during the Reagan administration, and anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist.

“I don’t think someone should be sent to prison for life when the third strike is relatively minor,” said Marc Levin, one of the group’s policy advisers. “It’s better to have the sentence fit the crime. When you have these one-size-fits-all laws, it really inhibits you from prioritizing your prison space.”

The measure also could fare better next year than in 2004 because of the greater number of younger voters and minorities expected to turn out for President Barack Obama’s re-election bid.

Proponents plan to formally kick off the campaign and submit the ballot language to the secretary of state sometime between August and early October.

The first three-strikers will be eligible for parole in March 2019.

The few dozen or so who have been released won their freedom through the cooperation of Cooley and other prosecutors, as well as Stanford law professor Mike Romano and students at the university’s Three Strikes Project, a law school clinic.

LaDoris Cordell, a former Santa Clara County Superior Court judge who is now San Jose’s independent police auditor, also obtained the release of the female three-striker in 2009 who wrote the bad check at Nordstrom.

To qualify for the ballot, the initiative needs 504,760 signatures. Political consultant Bill Zimmerman, who submitted a proposal to steer the campaign, estimated that organizers need about $10-15 million to win.

Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482.

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