Legislators, activists seek change in three-strikes law

By Stefanie Frith The Associated Press
Wednesday January 16, 2002

SACRAMENTO — Critics of the state’s three-strikes law proposed a bill and a statewide initiative to change it Tuesday, but the law’s supporters, including Gov. Gray Davis, said the law should remain as it is. 

During a morning news conference, the grandfather of Polly Klaas, the Petaluma 12-year-old who was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 1993, called the law excessive and supported an initiative to make the third strike apply only to violent felonies. 

Joe Klaas said he didn’t want his granddaughter’s legacy to be “a grandfather now serving 25 years to life for shoplifting seven bottles of shampoo.” 

Klaas was joined by representatives from Citizens Against Violent Crime, a two-year-old Orange County-based coalition seeking to amend the law. The group will now start gathering the 419,260 signatures needed to qualify for the November ballot. 

“As long as we can stay away from the name calling, then I think we can move forward with this measure,” said Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles. 

But the initiative and a proposed bill to change the law were attacked by both Davis and Secretary of State Bill Jones, who helped write the 1994 law while he was a member of the state Assembly. 

If the Legislature approves any change, Davis won’t sign it, said Byron Tucker, a Davis spokesman. He “sees no need to revise” the law. 

California voters and lawmakers approved the three-strikes law amid a furor over Polly Klaas’ murder. Richard Allen Davis, a repeat offender on parole at the time of the kidnapping, was convicted of the murder and was sentenced to death. 

Since the law took effect, there have been several highly publicized cases involving offenders whose third strike was a nonviolent crime and then who were sentenced to minimum terms of 25 years to life.  

Those led to the initiative and a bill introduced by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles. 

Goldberg said her bill would change the three-strikes law to apply only to violent and serious offenders. It also would allow inmates to request a resentencing hearing if they were imprisoned for a nonviolent offense. 

“This is so that people who steal AA batteries do not get life in prison,” Goldberg said. 

The law allows for a minimum of a 25-years-to-life term for defendants convicted of any felony if they have already been convicted of two serious or violent felonies. A serious felony, for example, includes burglary of an unoccupied house. 

More than 6,500 Californians have been sentenced to life terms under the law, according to the Department of Corrections. Nine percent have received life terms because their third strike was a misdemeanor, such as check fraud or shoplifting. Forty percent of the third strikes were violent crimes, 30 percent were for property crimes and 18 percent were drug offenses, the department said. 

Republican Assemblyman Phil Wyman of Tehachapi said the law doesn’t need to be changed. 

“If you have two violent felonies and then commit another felony, then society says enough,” Wyman said. “I think they should just leave it alone. They are smoking or dreaming something that isn’t appropriate.” 

Jones’ office said that since the birth of the three-strikes law in 1994, California’s crime rate has dropped 41 percent, more than double that of the nation. 

It takes more than stealing a piece of pizza or batteries to get a life sentence, said Jones spokesman Alfred Charles. An offender must have two previous violent felony convictions before stealing to get a life sentence. 

“No one goes to jail for minor theft charges,” Charles said. “I think the public is informed enough to know that.”