Time to reform ‘3 Strikes’

Ten years ago, a 12-year-old Petaluma girl, Polly Klaas, was abducted, raped and murdered by a violent career criminal named Richard Allen Davis.

In the climate of outrage that ensued, the Legislature quickly passed a harsh “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law, the first in the nation. Voters subsequently approved an initiative making it almost impossible to change the law except through another initiative.

The law’s purpose was admirable and understandable: to lock up incorrigibly violent criminals and throw away the key.

By now, however, it’s become clear that the law goes too far. Of the 7,373 inmates serving 25-years-to-life sentences as of March 2004, a majority, 57 percent, were in for nonviolent crimes, including 357 for petty theft, 235 for vehicle theft, 69 for forgery and 678 for drug possession.

It also is applied unevenly. San Francisco has sentenced only 32 people to life, while Santa Clara County has sentenced 414 to life in prison. And 45 percent of the three-strikes “lifers” are black, compared with 25 percent white and 26 percent Latino.

If the fairness issue doesn’t tug at your heart, consider this: It costs taxpayers $31,000 a year to incarcerate each of these offenders, and the costs will go up dramatically as the inmates age and require increased medical care. Do we want to pay this much to warehouse a bunch of old guys who pose little threat?

Proposition 66 on the November ballot is a chance to fix “Three Strikes.” It would limit third-strike offenses to serious or violent felonies, removing certain nonviolent offenses (petty theft, forgery, drug possession) from the list of “strikes.” Offenders convicted of these crimes would still go to prison, but not automatically for life. Offenders convicted of serious or violent third strikes would still be automatically sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Prop. 66 would not automatically release any third-strikers, but it would make those put away on nonviolent felonies eligible for a limited, one-time resentencing hearing to see if the time fits the crime.

An amended three-strikes law will target the repeat violent offenders voters want kept in prison for life while restoring basic fairness for nonviolent offenders and saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Voters should approve it on Nov. 2.