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They Changed Their Minds on Three Strikes. Can They Change the Voters'?

Ten years ago, these men wanted to see three strikes become the law in California. Now they're leading the fight to reform it.

September 19, 2004|Joe Domanick | Joe Domanick last wrote for the magazine about Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton. He is a Senior Fellow at USC Annenberg's Institute for Justice and Journalism, and the author of "Cruel Justice: Three Strikes and the Politics of Crime in America's Golden State."

Steve Cooley is florid-faced and unequivocal as he responds to a question during a public forum at USC last June. Asked about Proposition 66, the initiative to amend California's three-strikes law on the November ballot, the Los Angeles County district attorney essentially has two things to say: He hates it, and he will work for its defeat.

Then he lays out his case opposing the ponderously titled "Limitations on Three Strikes Law. Sex Crimes. Punishment. Initiative Statute": Only one sex crime against a child will be affected. It eliminates several crimes that can trigger a third-strike sentence. And because it's retroactive, thousands of prisoners will have to be resentenced within 180 days of its becoming law. "This initiative is a bad, bad idea," Cooley says.

Intently scribbling notes just a few feet away is 53-year-old Sam Clauder. At 6-foot-3 and 270 big-bellied pounds, Clauder is dressed in a suit and tie instead of his more typical attire of a blue John Kerry-for-President gimme cap, Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts. Rarely looking up as he writes, Clauder gives no clue that he's at the forum to scout the opposition or that he wrote the initial draft of the proposition that Cooley is trashing.

If you'd known Clauder years ago, you'd find that hard to believe. In November 1994, Clauder was among the 72% of Californians who voted in favor of the three-strikes law, sending a law-and-order message that defined the decade. The vote reaffirmed the same law that had been passed by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Pete Wilson eight months earlier, but this version had more teeth. Any attempts to amend the three-strikes law, now that it had been approved as an initiative, would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature instead of a simple majority.

In 1994, Clauder had done more than vote for three strikes. He had worked as a "ballot access consultant," coordinating the gathering of petition signatures for statewide initiatives. But three strikes was different. He believed that the law's passage was essential for public safety, believed it so strongly that in one 10-day period he oversaw the gathering of 12,000 signatures.

During the next two years, however, Clauder began hearing horror stories of people who were being sentenced for 25 years to life in prison for petty crimes. Not only had he personally favored the law, as a consultant he says he had "made money off the backs of these people." He decided to set things right. In this he is not alone.

From the beginning, the three-strikes law has been shaped by personal stories, some tragic, others epiphanies. Fresno photographer Mike Reynolds helped start the movement after the murder of his 18-year-old daughter. Three strikes was further fueled by public reaction to one of the most publicized crimes in recent California history--the abduction and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by Richard Allen Davis, a brutal, twice-convicted kidnapper.

This year's attempt to reform the three-strikes law on its 10th anniversary also is rife with pain and loss and, most of all, a change of heart. Two self-described ragtag volunteer activists worked for years in anonymity to reform it. Polly Klaas' grandfather has become its powerful advocate. A wealthy Sacramento insurance broker with a son in prison stepped in to personally bankroll it.

All four supported the original three-strikes law. All four have changed their minds.

For Sam Clauder and many others, the official ballot argument in favor of the 1994 law sounded right on the money. "Three strikes keeps career criminals who rape women, molest children and commit murder behind bars where they belong," it read.

What many voters didn't recognize, however, was that they also were voting to place a man such as Willie Turner in prison for 25 years to life. His third crime? Attempting to buy a macadamia nut disguised as a $5 rock of cocaine from an undercover cop. They didn't realize that Rene Landa would receive a third strike for stealing a spare tire, or Johnny Quirino for shoplifting some razor blades, or Scott Benscotter for stealing a pair of sneakers, or Robert Di Blasi for shoplifting $2.69 worth of AA batteries, or Eric Simmons for being in possession of three stolen ceiling fans, or Joey Arthur Fernandez for aiding and abetting the theft of baby formula and Tylenol.

Most of these men have long criminal histories. The petty nature of their third strike sometimes masks the serious nature of their previous crimes. But many also have no record of violence. They are simply society's natural-born losers--kinetic speed freaks and crackheads, washed-out winos and small-time thieves--Fellini's freaks, Charles Bukowski's barflies, junkies and addicts who got their first two strikes by committing burglaries to support their habits, often decades earlier.

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