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'Two-Strikers' Know the Margin for Error Is Thin : Crime: Repeat offenders feel the pressure of tough sentencing law. But some say it will not be a deterrent.

March 13, 1994|ROBERT J. LOPEZ and JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Joe Lopez does not think of himself as a criminal, even though heroin has put him behind bars nearly a dozen times. Nor does the gaunt, 48-year-old addict think of himself as a violent man, even though armed robbery is his favored technique for scoring the next fix.

"My philosophy is not to hurt anybody," said Lopez, his wavy hair streaked with gray, as he waited just after sunrise at a methadone clinic on Los Angeles' Eastside. "But my sickness always comes first."

A week after the tough "three strikes and you're out" sentencing law went into effect, Lopez is no longer merely a repeat offender, but one of at least 30,000 "two-strikers" statewide who face life imprisonment if they commit one more felony.

For them, the controversial measure is not a detached debate, one waged over politics, ideology or the mechanics of the legal system. They know this is about their margin for error, that even a nonviolent crime--such as receiving stolen property or forging a check--now could mean growing old in the dank confines of a prison cell.

"Man," Lopez said, "this is a killer."

From the housing projects of Watts to the homeless encampments near MacArthur Park, the new law has become a hot topic of street-corner debate, with rage and fear invariably giving way to fatalism.

Few habitual offenders, whether gangbangers or crack addicts, believe that the threat of a life term will serve as much of a deterrent. But they all feel the pressure of suddenly being thrust into the ranks of the unforgiven, aware that a criminal past--even one that has been left behind--can come back to haunt them.

"It's really depressing living with this over your head," said Manuel Johnson, 25, an ex-Crip who works in the Beverly Hills office of Amer-I-Can Inc., a self-esteem course for former gang members. "It's almost like the system is saying: 'I dare you. I dare you to mess up again.' "

Faced with such consequences, a Compton gang member said the kingpins who run his neighborhood simply would employ young followers with clean records to do more of their dirty work. A Venice surfer with convictions for cocaine and methamphetamine abuse expressed dismay at the prospect of life behind bars. Then he casually fired up a joint. And a Downtown panhandler known as Tex claimed he was not inclined to violence, but would rather go on a bloody spree than waste away behind bars.

"I might as well go out as a Trojan," said the 37-year-old ex-con. "Nobody in their right mind wants to sit between four walls and have someone tell them what to do and what to eat."

Although a handful of horrific slayings helped generate support for the stringent sentencing guidelines, the large majority of felons affected by the law are not serial killers or child molesters.

Burglars, many of them addicts who steal to feed their habits, are responsible for more than 70% of repeat offenses, according to the state Department of Corrections. Largely because these thieves could be sent away for life, officials estimate that it will cost $21 billion just to build enough cells to house the additional 109,000 inmates expected by the turn of the century.

Robert (Chano) Morales said he could be one of them, if a paycheck does not come soon.

Scanning the traffic that zips past Lucy's Drive-In on Pico Boulevard, the 24-year-old day laborer waits vainly for a chance to trim hedges or bust concrete, the only legitimate avenue he has found for a tattooed ex-con.

He said he has no interest in reliving the gangbanging days that twice landed him behind bars, first for assault with a deadly weapon, then for armed robbery. But he also says he could cross that line again--if he finds no other way to care for his 3-year-old daughter at their decrepit Westlake tenement hotel.

"If I have to steal food to keep her fed, I'll do it," said Morales, his long brown ponytail peeking out of a backward baseball cap. "Whatever it takes."

Proponents of the measure, signed into law Monday by Gov. Pete Wilson, shed no tears for those who choose to break the law. Crime is out of control, they argue, precisely because California has coddled its criminals rather than removing them from society.

Susan Fisher, whose brother was shot dead in 1987 by an ex-girlfriend who stalked him at his Carlsbad apartment, said the cost of constructing more prisons pales in comparison with the toll extracted on a victim's family.

"I can tell you from a personal experience what the cost of crime is--the cost is lives," said Fisher, who serves on the board of the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau, an advocacy group named after the late mother of Sharon Tate, the actress killed in 1969 by members of the Charles Manson family.

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