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'3 Strikes' Law Goes Into Effect : Crime: Governor signs legislation that aims to put habitual felons behind bars for life. He calls it only a first step toward tougher measures against crime.


Brushing aside criticisms of its cost and potential flaws, Gov. Pete Wilson on Monday signed what he called the toughest and most sweeping criminal sentencing law in the state's history, the "three strikes" bill that is aimed at putting habitual felons behind bars for life.

Wilson, in a ceremony outside the Los Angeles Police Department's Hollywood Division, said the bill should send a message to the worst of California's criminals: "You'd better start finding a new line of work because we're going to start turning career criminals into career inmates."

But the Republican governor, seeking to build upon the momentum created by public outrage over crime, said the "three strikes" measure is only the first step in what could be a comprehensive program to toughen the state's crime laws. He urged lawmakers to do more.

Moments after Wilson signed the bill, the man credited with spearheading its passage began submitting the last of an estimated 800,000 signatures that are expected to place a nearly identical proposal on the state ballot in November.

Mike Reynolds, a Fresno photographer whose daughter was killed by a repeat felon in 1992, said he is following through with his "three strikes and you're out" initiative because he does not want the Legislature to tamper with the law Wilson signed.

"They are in a position to unravel everything that's been done here," Reynolds said.

The new law requires a sentence of 25 years to life for any felon who has committed two prior violent or serious felonies--crimes that range from burglary and arson to rape and murder. Those convicted of a second violent or serious felony would receive a sentence twice as long as what is now on the books.

The law also limits plea bargaining and requires that convicts be permitted to reduce their sentences by no more than 20% with credits for working or attending school while in prison. Until now, inmates could cut their sentences in half with such credits.

The bill's sponsors say it gives California the toughest sentencing law in the nation.

The emergency measure took effect at 2:45 p.m. Monday when it was received and recorded by the secretary of state's office after the bill was shuttled from Los Angeles to Sacramento by a top Wilson aide. By day's end, it was all but certain that the first of the repeat felons who will be sentenced under the law already was in custody.

The Corrections Department reports that the new law will lead to a massive prison building boom--20 more penitentiaries by the end of the decade--and eventually increase operating costs by more than $2 billion a year. The state spends about $3 billion annually to run 28 prisons that house about 120,000 inmates.

Although the measure attracted anticipated criticism from criminal defense lawyers and civil libertarians, it also was opposed by some prosecutors, including Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti.

Speaking for Garcetti, Assistant Dist. Atty. R. Dan Murphy said his office had reservations about the bill and would have preferred another, narrower measure proposed in the Legislature.

"It is now the law," he said. "We fully intend to enforce it."

Murphy said the major concern of the district attorney's office is that the law would further clog an overcrowded court system. With passage of the law, Murphy said those charged with serious crimes will be far less likely to plead guilty because it would mean being that much closer to a life sentence.

"The consequences of pleading guilty are much greater," Murphy said.

Wilson said similar fears have been voiced before the passage of other major crackdowns on crime, including the "victims bill of rights" in 1982 and the "speedy trial" initiative in 1990, and have been unfounded.

Wilson also said the measure's potential costs have been exaggerated because the estimates do not consider savings from a reduction in crime brought about by locking up repeat felons for longer terms. Those behind bars cannot commit more crimes, Wilson said, and others on the streets might be deterred by fear of the longer sentences.

"I'm convinced that if we are sending clear messages to career criminals, we will begin to see them reform their conduct," Wilson said.

Even if the costs are huge, Wilson said, he believes the price will be worth it. He compared the construction of new prisons to the building of the University of California and the State Water Project, two endeavors from an earlier era that often are cited as examples of the vision of Wilson's predecessors.

Like those projects, the new prisons will be financed with bonds, similar to a mortgage paid off over 20 years.

"We're producing . . . capital improvements for future generations, and they rightly can be called upon to help pay for it," Wilson said.

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