Covering California’s Three Strikes Law


On May 2 and 3, 2011, twenty-five California journalists met with state and local officials and a range of criminal justice experts on the campus of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, to examine California's so-called “Three Strikes Law” and its impact on the state's criminal justice system, in advance of a possible referendum for repeal in 2012. Access the agenda here.

The law, passed after a 1994 statewide ballot initiative triggered by several grisly crimes perpetrated by former felons, changed the state’s sentencing rules to require a minimum sentence of 25 years to life for three-time repeat offenders with multiple prior serious or violent felony convictions. More than 25 states have introduced similar “Three Strikes and You’re Out” sentencing rules, but California is the only state to allow a “non-serious” non-violent felony to count as a third strike.

The majority of participating speakers argued that the law, passed in 1994, should be repealed or at least significantly modified. They noted that the legislation has been an important contributor to the state's seriously overcrowded prison system. But several maintained that it has made Californians safer, and should not be changed.

Keynote speaker Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley argued that Three Strikes should be modified so that a person could only be prosecuted for a violent or “serious” third strike; and should also be changed to allow those already serving three strikes sentences for petty crimes to petition a judge for their release.

Erwin Chemerinsky, the Dean of the UC Irvine school of Law?who unsuccessfully argued the law’s unconstitutionally before the U.S. Supreme Court?declared that the law should be entirely rescinded. “The most persuasive studies show that (the law)_ has had no positive effect when it comes to crime,” he said. “New York has had a greater decrease in crime than California, and it has no three-strikes law.”

However, Gregg Totten, the Ventura County District Attorney and Vice President of the pro-three strikes California District Attorney’s Association said that the law should remain as is: “In my judgment and in my colleague’s judgment, [the law] has been discerningly used.” He was supported by former Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels, a three strikes supporter, who said, “We feel that Three Strikes (in California) targets exactly the kind of people that need to be targeted.” He added: “If you incarcerate someone for longer than you might otherwise, you lessen his crime life.”

The politics of changing the law, much less getting a new referendum on the ballot, are likely to remain a serious obstacle.

“Let me show you the bullet wounds on my back,” joked former State Senator Gloria Romero as she described her unsuccessful efforts to modify the law at a time when California's Democratic caucus suffered from “real political paralysis.” The central issue worrying lawmakers about any kind of criminal justice reform is not about the specific policy, she said, but “about being [called] soft on crime.” This was supported by

Steve Cooley, who said he was “persona non grata” with many members of the California District Attorneys’ Association because of his own attempts to reform the law.

Nevertheless, many of the panelists said it should be a priority for the administration of recently elected Gov. Jerry Brown. Acting San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon (who is currently running as a candidate for the next DA elections) said that the Three Strikes law had contributed to “families being destroyed.” Gascon, who served as chief of San Francisco's police force before being appointed acting DA, said, “We have to ask ourselves (if) being tough on crime is reducing crime and making it sustainable. We have a 70 percent recidivism rate [in California] and we think [our criminal justice system] works.”

Michael Romano, Director of Stanford University’s Three Strikes Project called California’s three strikes law, the “worst in the country,” and pointed to cases where defendants had received three strikes 25-year-to-life sentences for “possession of a stolen cell phone,” the theft of two faucets from a Home Depot or attempting to steal a car radio. Several former felons and their relatives also spoke out against the law.

The two-day conference, co-sponsored by the John Jay College Center on Media, Crime and Justice and the USC Annenberg School School for Communication and Journalism, was supported by the Public Welfare Foundation. It was entitled: “The Future of California’s Three Strikes Law: Reform, Repeal, or the Status Quo? How can the Media Stay Ahead of the Story?” Other co-sponsors were the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and the San Francisco District Attorney’s office. For the workshop agenda, conference materials and stories produced from the event, please see below.

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