Advocates of scaling back California's tough Three-Strikes law hope for place on ballot
Posted: 12/19/2011 06:42:47 AM PST
Buoyed by a favorable financial analysis, advocates of an initiative to scale back the nation's toughest "three-strikes" law will soon launch a signature-gathering drive to put the measure on California's November ballot.Revising California's law would save state taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year initially and up to $100 million a year in the long run, according to supporters, largely in reduced prison and parole costs. A brief analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office will appear on the ballot itself as well as on signature petitions.
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.
"Voters will potentially have a slew of initiatives on the November ballot seeking to raise revenue with tax hikes, and this initiative will stand out as a sensible way to raise significant revenue without raising taxes," said campaign spokesman Dan Newman.
But political experts said opponents are likely to dispute the savings estimate and will portray it as soft on crime if the measure qualifies for the ballot. Proponents must collect 504,760 signatures by mid-April to qualify.
The initiative, crafted by a group of Stanford University law professors and backed by the New York-based NAACP Legal Defense Fund, would reserve the toughest penalty -- 25 years to life -- for the baddest of the
Under the existing law, 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.
The origin of the Three Strikes Law was propelled by public outrage following several high-profile murders committed by ex-felons.
The most notorious case was the strangling of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, who was kidnapped in 1993 from her Petaluma home.
The law was passed by both the Legislature and the voters in 1994.
Currently, the first two strikes have to be violent or serious crimes, as defined by the penal code. Sentences are doubled for the second strike. But only California, out of 24 states with similar laws, allows the third strike to be any felony.
The new initiative would allow only certain hard-core criminals, including murderers, rapists and child molesters, 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.
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.
That measure, Proposition 66, sought to limit felonies that trigger a third strike to violent or serious crimes in every case.
Unlike Proposition 66, the new measure 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.
And while Proposition 66 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.
"Restoring the original intent of the Three Strikes Law will ensure violent criminals stay locked up forever, and instead of wasting space and money locking up sock thieves, we can save over $100 million every year to fund schools, stop crime and prevent tax increases," Newman said.
A lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said backers hope passage of the measure will lead other states to adopt more prudent sentencing laws.
The group, which defends equal rights in education, employment, political representation, voting rights and criminal justice, helped scale back harsh sentences for crack cocaine violations. About 45 percent of California's third-strikers are black.
"California is very important. It's a bellwether state,'' said Jeffrey Robinson, associate director-counsel for programs and administration.
Robinson declined to identify any campaign contributors but said he was confident the effort had sufficient backing to support a "robust effort.''
The campaign is likely to face significant opposition from tough-on-crime advocates, who have long held sway in California, political experts predicted.
The provision of the state's Three Strikes Law allowing prosecutors to charge any felony as a third strike is the harshest of some 24 similar laws in the nation.
"The cost savings in the title give the proponents a real boost, but this is still an uphill fight,'' said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
"In addition to the ideological hurdles, competition for the voter's attention is going to be incredibly expensive.''
The November ballot is expected to be particularly jampacked because of a new state law that requires all initiatives to be placed on November general election ballots, rather than spreading them out throughout the year.
Proponents hope to win support by putting together a bipartisan coalition that includes Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, who has long said that 25 years to life in prison is the same sentence he gives murderers, calling it "disproportionate" for relatively minor crimes.
John Matsusaka, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at USC, said any coalition will have to be broad-based for the measure to succeed. Advocates also expect voters to be influenced by the recent Supreme Court ruling requiring California to reduce prison overcrowding.
But Matsusaka said the overcrowding issue is a double-edged sword.
As California reduces its prison population by transferring responsibility for the incarceration and rehabilitation of low-level felons to counties, local officials have been warning that crime will increase, especially in communities with overcrowded jails.
"Most people don't want to go soft on crime,'' he said.
"It's going to take a real clever campaign to get voters to change their minds.''
Proponents are counting on the greater number of younger voters and minorities expected to turn out next year for President Barack Obama's re-election bid.
"The November presidential election will likely mean a 10-12 point Democratic advantage," Newman said, "and a significant turnout of independent voters."