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 <CF102>won't</CF> do:

; 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 <i>isn't</i> 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.

No other state imposes a life sentence for petty offenses. Not even Texas.

You may not feel sorry for someone with three felony convictions. But how much would you spend to keep them behind bars?

Three strikes is one reason why California spends almost $10 billion a year on prisons, far more than any other state. It's a big factor in crowding, which resulted in a federal court order to reduce the inmate population.

Savings associated with Proposition 36 could quickly reach $100 million a year, according to the state's nonpartisan legislative analyst. The state auditor said health care and housing costs for non-violent three-strike offenders cost taxpayers $19.2 billion between 1994 and 2010. Costs will climb as inmates age, requiring more health care.

High costs were one reason that three strikes languished in the Legislature until 12-year-old Polly Klaas was kidnapped from her Petaluma home in 1993 and murdered by a parolee with a long record. Voters passed three strikes with Richard Allen Davis in mind.

Proposition 36 would focus three strikes on criminals like Davis without the exponential costs of life sentences for nonviolent offenders. The Press Democrat recommends approval of Proposition 36.