Californians Could Reform the Three Strikes Law

Voters will decide in November if they want the controversial law eased.

Marvin Caldwell, 63, looks out of his cell at San Quentin state prison

California inmates like Marvin Caldwell, 63, are serving life in prison for non-violent "third strikes." (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Matt Fleischer was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

The seemingly minor crime of pizza theft turned into a 25-to-life sentence 18 years ago for Jerry Dewayne Williams.

Williams was hanging out with friends at the Redondo Beach Pier in California in 1994 when the then-27-year-old unwisely decided to steal a piece of pizza from some children enjoying a day at the beach. The kids’ parents called the police and Williams was arrested—perhaps rightly so.

But here’s the rub: for the crime of pizza theft, Williams was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. California’s three strikes law had just gone on the books, which condemned repeat offenders who picked up a third felony conviction to 25-year to life sentences. Williams had a troubled past, and prosecutors counted his pizza snatching as a third felony. Williams’ case became national news, and his sentence was so unheard of that fellow inmates assumed he had killed a pizza delivery man.

California was the first state in the nation to adopt the three strikes law. Since that time, 23 other states have followed suit—although California’s law is arguably the most draconian in the nation. But that could change in November.

After decades of tough-on-crime one-upmanship, California could swing its rulebook in the opposite direction. Voters will have the chance to decide on the Three Strikes Reform Act—which if passed, would be the first relaxation of three strikes since the law passed in 1994.

The law would prohibit a three strikes life sentence from being applied to non-violent offenders with no history of violence in their past. The bill may wind up saving California taxpayers an estimated $100 million per year, and might save petty offenders like Williams and Rodriguez from receiving sentences fit for murderers. 

“The majority of people sentenced to third strike life sentences are non-violent,” says Michael Romano, director of Stanford University’s Three Strikes Project, which consulted on the bill. “These are not the murderers, rapists and child molesters that the original law intended to take off the streets. The Three Strikes Reform Act restores the original intent of the law to focus on truly dangerous folks.”

Williams wasn’t the only Californian to be sentenced to life in prison for crimes that even Kafka would have a tough time plausibly novelizing. In 2000, repeated non-violent thief Louis Rodriguez was sentenced to a Third Strike life in prison sentence for stealing a candy bar and some cheese from a Los Angeles grocery store. After more than eight years behind bars, he died in a prison hospital from terminal liver failure. At the end of his life, he wound up costing California taxpayers more than $100,000 a year in housing and medical expenses (Williams did about five years in prison before being released.).

The most recent poll on three strikes, taken by the Field Research Corporation in 2011, shows that nearly three-quarters of Californians support some kind of reform on the issue that would ease sentencing. The last time voters had the chance to amend the initiative, however, they declined.

In 2004, Californians voted on Proposition 66, which would have undone the state’s three strikes law. Polls showed 74 percent of voters supported the bill, but a zero-hour negative ad push by the California Peace Officers Association, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and most of the law enforcement community turned public sentiment against it. The bill wound up failing by a 53 to 47 percent margin.

This time around, three strikes reform appears to be in much better shape. The current version of the bill is far more moderate, and based largely on Republican Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley’s more lenient policies for dealing with third strike eligible criminals. Cooley was a prominent adversary of Prop 66. Though he has yet to formally endorse the current bill, Cooley’s publc statements have been supportive.

That doesn't mean the bill will pass without a fight. According to Romano, some California district attorneys could be lining up to fight it. But this current bill has enough support that three strikes reformers are feeling good about its chances. 

“Proposition 66 was largely supported by victims’ families and defense attornies,” Romano says. "The law enforcement community was almost universally against it. The current initiative is truly a bipartisan effort.”

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