Laws and order

According to a Field Poll taken last month, California voters may be poised to reconsider one of the more draconian provisions in the state’s “three strikes” sentencing law. The poll reported that 76 percent of likely voters support an initiative on the November ballot that would amend the three-strikes law to ensure that life sentences could be imposed only if the third strike were a violent felony.

That would solve some of the problems described in Joe Domanick’s new book, Cruel Justice: Three Strikes and the Politics of Crime in America’s Golden State. Domanick looks at the way three strikes entered the political vocabulary and how the law has been used to enhance the political aspirations of several Californians, including congressional candidate Dan Lungren and Senate candidate Bill Jones. In fact, the political power of the three-strikes meme has become so great with a crime-weary electorate that no politician dares question the law itself. Critics merely suggest ways to improve it so that petty criminals don’t find themselves facing life terms for drug and shoplifting offenses.

Domanick tells the story of the law by telling the stories of the people behind it. Among them are Mike Reynolds, the father of murder victim Kimber Reynolds, who turned his grief into a tireless effort to bring the law to the ballot. Then there are Joe and Marc Klaas, the grandfather and father of murder victim Polly Klaas, whose death at the hands of a paroled felon brought the initiative to voters’ attention—in spite of the Klaas family’s reservations about some provisions. There’s Sue Reams, the mother of Shane Reams, a drug addict who ended up with a life sentence for acting as a lookout on a $20 crack deal. And then there’s Lenny, struggling with both mental illness and drug addiction, for whom Proposition 36 offered treatment instead of a life in prison under the three-strikes law.

These very personal stories, told compassionately, are the backdrop against which Domanick weaves the story of three strikes. It’s a tale of fear and power: The public remains convinced that locking up petty criminals will protect them from crime, while politicians wage endless campaigns using cash from the prison guards’ union, which has a vested interest in seeing as many people behind bars as possible. Among the more interesting sections is the one in which Domanick details Don Novey’s transformation of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association from a simple union to a policy-making juggernaut.

Domanick also explores the weird paradox of Californians’ enlightened view of drug crimes, as evidenced by the passage of Proposition 36, which mandated treatment instead of prison for many drug offenders. But Proposition 36 didn’t include a retroactive clause, so those already sentenced to 25-to-life terms for nonviolent drug offenses under three strikes did not benefit from its rehabilitative intent.

Cruel Justice is both an exhaustive look at the consequences of the three-strikes laws on California and an indictment of the recent trend toward making laws based on high-profile cases. The desire of victims and their survivors for retribution is certainly understandable, but it’s hardly good public policy. Readers surely will find themselves asking why society has given up on the concept of rehabilitation in favor of retribution. Do we no longer believe that the punishment should fit the crime? And yet three strikes as enacted in California is anything but “proportional punishment,” and it certainly surrenders all hope of rehabilitation.

There’s hope that California voters will, if not reject it, at least amend the three-strikes law. Putting nonviolent offenders behind bars for life is nothing short of a crime.