Prop 36 and how California’s ‘Three Strikes’ law came to be

Photo by mikecogh via flickr

Back in 1994, California voters overwhelmingly voted to pass a ballot measure that promised to “keep career criminals, who rape women, molest innocent children and commit murder, behind bars where they belong.” It became the state’s “Three Strikes” law, under which a person convicted of a felony who has two or more prior convictions for serious or violent felonies is sentenced to 25 years to life. Now, Proposition 36 would amend the law so that a convict’s third strike must stem from a violent offense for that 25-year sentence to be triggered. We talk to supporters and foes on “Which Way LA?

But there’s an interesting backstory behind how the bill became law that has relevance to the debate over the 2012 ballot measure. It starts with the kidnap-murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas in Petaluma. Her father, Marc Klaas was asked back then to campaign for the measure. Klaas famously teamed up with Fresno photographer Mike Reynolds whose own teenage daughter, Kimber, was murdered by two career criminals. Whereas Reynolds became the main proponent of “Three Strikes,” Klaas felt the ballot measure was potentially unjust and actually flipped sides to actively campaign against it. The result was a strange public sparring over criminal justice laws by the two bereaved fathers. It was the subject of a PBS documentary in 1999. The measure passed and has been dividing law enforcement experts in California for years, which has led to the 2012 ballot effort to soften the rule.

This time around, Mike Reynolds is not alone in his support for the current “Three Strikes” law; Marc Klaas now sings the law’s praises too and the two men are back on the same side of the issue in opposing Prop 36.

Klaas spoke to KCRW on Wednesday about why he’s changed his mind on the law, again. “I was in opposed to Three Strikes because it seemed to cast a very wide net that seemed to focus on a population of young black guys and there was no discretion at any level,” he said. But he believes that’s changed because judges and prosecutors have some discretion about whether to seek third-strike sentences. “The results speak for themselves,” Klaas said, “we’re talking about a very small population who are sentenced under this law, all of whom have at least two serious or violent offenses on their rap sheet, who have all had the benefit of prosecutorial discretion, judicial discretion and the appeals process. And if they still find themselves behind bars, that’s not my problem.”

Some in law enforcement disagree with those points, of course. The district attorneys for both Los Angeles and San Francisco support Prop 36 because many DAs throughout the state don’t use such discretion. Proponents say Prop 36 could save $70 million to $100 million in court and prison costs, and reserve prison cells for more serious offenders. We explore those issues on Wednesday’s show.

But with Klaas’ reversal at least, there is one former critic who’s become convinced that California’s tough sentencing rules have worked as they were intended.