Group submits initiative petitions to change three-strikes law
A coalition of law enforcement officials, civil rights organizations and taxpayer groups on Thursday said it has submitted enough signatures to local election officials to qualify a November ballot initiative to change California's three-strikes law.
The landmark law, which imposes harsh penalties on repeat offenders, remains controversial 18 years after passage, with activists and authorities alike asking whether its tough sentences sometimes far exceed the crimes.
Unlike other three-strikes laws across the country, California's treats any felony as a third strike -- even a nonviolent offense such as petty theft or drug possession -- as long as an offender's criminal history includes at least two violent or serious crimes, such as rape, robbery or residential burglary.
The proposed initiative, dubbed the Three Strikes Reform Act, would double the ordinary sentence for criminals whose third strike is not violent or serious instead of sentencing them to life behind bars. Offenders with a violent third strike still would receive life sentences.
The measure also would allow prisoners currently serving life behind bars for nonviolent third strikes to appeal their sentences. Judges could reduce the sentence to a term of double the normal penalty if they determine the offender poses no risk to public safety.
“The Three Strikes Reform Act is right for California,” said Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley in a statement. “It will ensure that the punishment fits the crime. Dangerous recidivist criminals will remain behind bars for life, and our overflowing prisons will not be clogged with inmates who pose no risk to public safety.”
The initiative also is supported by San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascon, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. Supporters cited a report by the state's nonpartisan legislative analyst that showed the measure could save California more than $100 million a year.
Supporters said they submitted more than 830,000 signatures to local election officials, well above the 504,760 necessary to qualify the measure for the ballot. The secretary of state and county election boards now must count and verify the signatures.
-- Michael J. Mishak in Sacramento
Photo: A prisoner leans on cell bars at Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles. Credit: Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times.