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Make Third Strikes Matter

January 22, 2002

Its supporters say that California's three-strikes-and-you're-out law has caused crime to drop and put the state's worst criminals behind bars for good. However, a growing number of Californians also worry that filling state prison cells with petty thieves and small-time drug addicts serving life sentences is unduly harsh and eats up taxpayer funds.

Since three strikes became law in 1994, at least half a dozen bills have been introduced to amend the statute to eliminate mandatory life sentences for every two-bit criminal who commits a third-strike crime, even if the previous crimes were committed 20 years before, even if the third strike involves possessing marijuana or passing a bad check. Each measure has died. Last week, a group of lawmakers unveiled a new proposal. This time, legislators should vote "yes."

At least 35 states and the federal government impose stiffer sentences on repeat criminals. Most reserve the harshest punishment, life in prison, for those who've committed a serious or violent crime like rape or assault. California's law does not. Conviction for any third felony brings a life sentence. Even misdemeanors like stealing a couple of videotapes or a slice of pizza can be filed as felonies if the defendant has a record. More than 7,000 California inmates are now serving life terms for third-strike offenses. Of those, more than 2,600 were convicted of crimes considered not serious or not violent.

Many prosecutors defend the harsh punishments by arguing that these felons are far from being upstanding citizens and that many of them probably got away with other crimes. But American judges and juries are charged with deliberating only on the crimes before them. It is also true, especially in Los Angeles and other major cities, that judges and prosecutors are using their discretion to avoid pizza-theft third strikes. Outside the cities it is often a different story, however, making for more disparities and inequities.

The proposed measure, by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), would limit the stiffest penalties to criminals whose third-strike offense was a serious or violent crime, as is the law in several other states. At the same time, a group called Citizens Against Violent Crime announced they will begin gathering signatures to qualify for the November ballot an initiative similar to Goldberg's AB 1790.

Recent polls indicate that a majority of Californians not only approve of these proposed changes but thought the 1994 law already distinguished between serious or violent crimes and petty offenses. This measure is not about being soft on crime. It's about being smart.

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