The official ballot argument for California's three strikes law said its purpose was to “keep murderers, rapists and child molesters behind bars, where they belong.” Who could quibble with that?
In practice, however, three strikes didn't stop with hard-core criminals.
Drug addicts and small-time thieves are serving life sentences, costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year. One man stole nine videotapes. Another shoplifted a VCR. A third stole three golf clubs. Almost half of the inmates sentenced to life under three strikes didn't commit violent crimes.
Proposition 36 on the Nov. 6 ballot would sharpen the focus of the law, saving its harshest penalties for repeat offenders convicted of serious or violent felonies.
It's a sensible reform, supported by the district attorneys in Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties. California voters should support it, too.
Let's be clear about what Proposition 36
• It won't put killers, rapists and other dangerous convicts back on the street. They would still be subject to life sentences for a third strike.
So would anyone with two prior felonies who is convicted of a felony defined as serious or violent. That includes armed robbery, assault, kidnapping, carjacking and many sex offenses.
• It won't eliminate enhanced penalties for repeat offenders. Prison terms would be doubled for a second felony conviction for anyone with a serious or violent felony in their past.
That's unchanged from the present law.
• It won't automatically release anyone currently serving a life sentence. Judges would have discretion to reduce a sentence or let it stand.
What Proposition 36 changes are the rules for strike three. If it isn't a violent or serious offense, the penalty would double, just as it does now for strike two. But no one would get life for stealing some golf clubs or a “Snow White” video.