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Backers of Three Strikes Unflinchingly Defend Law

Crime: Victims rights advocates declare measure a success. Personal losses help motivate their fighting spirit.

July 03, 1996|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All they ask, really, is for you to imagine. Then, they believe, you will understand.

First, imagine: Your doorbell rings. An officer stands on your stoop. He clears his throat. Frowns. And tells you: Your daughter has been shot. Or your son has been bludgeoned. She is dead. Or he is dead. Murdered.

Now, understand: The grief, the fear, the anger. The vow that the killer will pay. That all killers will pay. And not just killers, but muggers and robbers and dope pushers, too. Anyone who repeatedly, willfully flouts the law.

Imagine their horror, understand their vow, and you will appreciate the fierce passion behind the victims' rights movement that propelled California's three-strikes initiative into law.

In the two years since the law took effect, the activists who crusaded for it have heard all the criticism--that the punishments are too harsh, the costs are too high, the rules are too strict.

They've heard, too, of the sad-sack cases--the man who filches the piece of pizza or pockets the bag of crack and lands in jail for 25 years to life. Some have even read the recent California Supreme Court decision that modified three strikes by granting judges the power to overlook prior convictions and hand out shorter sentences.

Still, they remain convinced that Californians want, need and deserve three strikes.

Many victims' advocates are trying to move on to other issues--like lobbying for a law to take away certain inmates' rights to extended, unsupervised conjugal visits. But they remain ready to spring back to their primary cause, to defend and uphold three strikes. In their minds, it should be the most basic law of all: criminals who repeatedly prey on society get locked away so they cannot hurt anyone else.

"We need three strikes," Thousand Oaks activist Martha Farwell explains, "so someone like me will not have to say, 'If we had put him away, my daughter would still be alive.' "

Activists are certain the problems now attributed to three strikes, from crowded jails to clogged courts, will settle down over the next few years, as repeat offenders either mend their ways or leave the state. In the meantime, they stand ready to fight fight off doubters.

* You want to talk about cost? OK, fine. Talk about how much it costs to incarcerate inmates. Robert Leach will respond by telling you how much more it costs to set them free.

"My daughter was murdered 13 years ago when she was a senior [at UC Santa Barbara], studying to be a teacher of handicapped children," said Leach, president of the Southern California group Justice for Homicide Victims. The man who killed her was not a repeat offender--he was her ex-boyfriend, in fact, and he shot her in the head with a shotgun in Malibu. Still, Leach uses his own pain--and his daughter's promise--to rebut those who would say three strikes costs too much: "Who knows how much her death cost society? Not to mention our personal anguish."

* You want to talk about priorities? Argue, perhaps, that we should spend more on schools, social work or defense than on holding prisoners behind bars for decades? Century City resident Harold Young, who lost his son to a murderous robber, will quickly set you straight: "People in this country today don't care about Bosnia, don't care about the Arab conflict with Israel. What they care about is the safety of their families. People are afraid. It's as simple as that."

* You want to tug on the heartstrings? Say it doesn't seem fair that some guy who shoplifts a bottle of perfume can get locked up for life just because he committed two robberies 15 years ago? Go to it. Summon up all the outrage you can muster. But be ready for an angry earful from Jan Miller.

Miller's daughter was beaten to death in her apartment 12 years ago, when she was attending Chico State University. Detectives never did solve the homicide. The murderer got away clean--no arrest, no conviction. That painful fact leads Miller to believe that many criminals commit many horrible deeds before they ever get caught. The way she figures it, if someone gets convicted twice, he deserves life in the slammer the third time around, no matter what his offense.

"When TV gives us this 2 1/2-minute sound bite about the pour soul who stole a piece of pizza, they ask if he deserves to spend 25 years to life in prison. Well, the truth of the matter is, he probably does," said Miller, who runs the national group Citizens Against Homicide from her home in San Rafael.

Miller and other activists identify with three strikes so strongly that they take criticism of the law almost as a personal affront.

As activist Kelly Rudiger put it: "The people who say [ease three strikes] are people who have never lost someone to crime."

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