COURSEY: Three strikes, the death penalty and Richard Allen Davis
Published: Monday, October 15, 2012 at 12:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 15, 2012 at 12:50 p.m.
In a debate Sunday night in Santa Rosa, Marc Klaas invoked the specter of the man who killed his daughter to argue against propositions on the November ballot that would change California's three-strikes sentencing law and abolish the state's death penalty.
It was a good strategy. Richard Allen Davis is the perfect example of why three strikes and the death penalty were created in the first place. Davis, who kidnapped and murdered 12-year-old Polly Klaas in 1993, would have been inside a prison cell instead of out on parole had three strikes been in place at the time. And if ever there was a person deserving to be put to death for the callousness and depravity of his crime, Davis fits the bill to a T.
But, while Marc Klaas makes a good and emotionally wrenching debater, the discussion about Propositions 34 and 36 isn't about him or his daughter or the man who killed her.
It's about us, and how we function as a society.
As much as we might like to think otherwise, our criminal justice system is a mirror of our values. And right now that mirror reflects a system that at times is wildly out of balance, at times is flat-out wrong, at times is at odds with the values we hold dear. It is in need of small fixes and large changes.
Proposition 34, which would abolish the death penalty in California, represents the latter. Proposition 36, which would make a small but significant change to the three strikes law, provides the former.
Let's start with the death penalty, to which Davis was sentenced in 1996 after being convicted of the murder of Polly Klaas. Sixteen years later, he still lives on Death Row at San Quentin with 725 other condemned criminals.
I've explained my personal opposition to the death penalty many times in columns over the years. I don't believe that the legal killing of a person should be society's response to the illegal killing of another person. The ritual and spectacle of a Death Row execution elevates the criminal to celebrity status, reduces us to the killer's level and diminishes us as a society.
But there are a lot of other reasons to oppose the death penalty. It is not pursued fairly and evenly – a poor, non-white defendant is more likely to be subjected to the death penalty than a rich, white defendant. It does not deter crime – murders are usually committed in the heat of the moment or by sociopaths, not by people who are worried about consequences. It is expensive – California could save more than $100 million a year on trials, appeals and special housing for Death Row inmates if Proposition 34 passes, according to the state's Legislative Analyst.
And, to bring the argument back to Davis, the death penalty isn't even used in California – despite all of its costs. Davis and other condemned criminals are much more likely to die of natural causes on Death Row than to be put to death by the state (Davis survived a self-administered drug overdose in his cell in 2006). Of about 900 inmates sentenced to death in California since 1978, only 14 have been executed – none since 2006.
Let's bring closure to the death penalty by replacing it with sentencing that reflects reality: life without possibility of parole. We don't need to kill criminals to stop them from killing. All we need to do is lock them up and throw away the key.
Unfortunately, we're already doing that to some offenders on the other end of the spectrum, even if they don't deserve it. The three strikes law, for which Davis became the poster boy after his crimes against Polly Klaas, requires that a defendant who has previously been convicted of a felony will face more serious penalties if convicted of a second felony and, if convicted of a third felony, is subject to a life term in prison with no possibility of parole for at least 25 years.
It's an attractive idea, and had it been in place prior to 1994 Richard Allen Davis likely would have been behind bars rather than prowling a Petaluma neighborhood the night Polly Klaas disappeared.
But the fix that is proposed by Proposition 36 has nothing to do with criminals like Davis, who had a long history of kidnapping, sexual assault and other violent crimes. Instead, it is concerned with criminals like Brian Smith.
Smith, who had previously been convicted for an unarmed robbery and the burglary of an unoccupied home, was arrested for shoplifting in 1994, not long after voters passed the three strikes law. Because of his previous felonies, the shoplifting was charged as a felony and a third strike. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in state prison. He is one of more than 4,600 out of California's 9,000 inmates serving three-strike sentences who was convicted on a third strike that was not a violent crime.
Proposition 36 would revise the law to require that a third strike be for a serious or violent felony in order to qualify for a 25-to-life sentence.
Klaas argued Sunday that the three strikes law has made California safer, and it shouldn't be fiddled with. But locking up drug addicts and petty thieves for life is costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year while doing little to protect public safety. The three strikes law has cried out for reform since its approval by voters in 1994.
While three-strikers currently serving long sentences could apply for a reduction in time if Prop. 36 passes, violent career criminals like Davis wouldn't be affected by the change. Anyone with a past strike involving rape, murder or child molestation would be ineligible for a reduction in sentence – no matter what their third strike was for. And anyone seeking a sentence reduction would need a judge to determine they were not a threat to public safety before their release.
Proposition 36 is a good and reasonable adjustment of the three strikes law that protects us from violent criminals while improving the fairness of our criminal justice system.
And while Richard Allen Davis makes a good bogeyman, he's going to die in San Quentin no matter the outcome of next month's election.
Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.
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