Thinking Twice About California’s Three Strikes Law

Includes original video and additional multimedia resources

On November 6, California voters will decide whether the state should revise it’s tough-on-crime three strikes law. If passed, Proposition 36 would reduce sentences for second and third strike offenders. Opponents of the measure warn that doing so will lead to an increase in violent crime. San Francisco State University film students Owen Wesson, Aaron Firestone, Marine Gautier, and Daniel Casillas took to the road this fall to collect a range of perspectives on a thorny, emotionally-charged issue that questions how best to handle crime prevention and fairly administer justice in California.

The Background

In 1992, 18-year-old Kimber Reynolds was attacked by two men who attempted to steal her purse outside a restaurant in Fresno. One of the men shot her in the head. She died 26 hours later. The  25-year-old shooter – who was killed shortly thereafter in a police standoff – was described by police as a hardcore drug user who had been repeatably jailed on gun and drug charges, and who just two months earlier had been released from state prison where he served a sentence for auto theft.

After his daughter’s death, Mike Reynolds began fighting for a statewide tough-on-crime policy to keep potentially violent criminals off the streets. His effort gained widespread support following the kidnapping, rape and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas just eighteen months later.

In 1994, voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 184, known as the “Three Strikes and You’re Out Law,” which Reynolds helped author. In effect ever since, the law has significantly increased the length of prison sentences for second and third time offenders who had a serious or violent original conviction  Even if repeat convictions are minor – such as petty theft or drug possession – a second strike offense now results in double the normal prison term. A third strike gets a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life. Of the roughly 24 states with a three strikes type  law, California’s is widely considered the harshest.

Californians remain sharply divided over three strikes. Advocates like Mike Reynolds are quick to note the dramatic decrease in crime statewide since it was enacted: by 2004, the statewide violent crime rate had gone down by half.

But opponents argue that the law unfairly imprisons scores of low-level offenders for excessive periods at a huge expense to taxpayers. In the decade after the law’s passage, the state prison population increased by roughly thirty percent, and the prison budget skyrocketed. Today, of the more than 41,000 second and third strike inmates in California’s prisons, more than half are serving elongated sentences for non-violent crimes. Of these, more than 6,000 are for drug-related offenses.

All attempts to reform three strikes, including a ballot proposition in 2004 have failed. But on Nov. 6, California will again reconsider the issue, and vote on Proposition 36, a measure that which would significantly revise the three strikes law, resulting in shorter sentences for many non-violent, non-serious offenders.

The California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that if Prop 36 passes, it will save California roughly $70 to $90 million annually. Opponents of the proposition, however, warn that doing so will severely compromise public safety.

Additional Multimedia Resources

NPR three-part series, and interactive timeline on California’s three strikes law.

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