SACRAMENTO — One guy stole a loaf of bread. Another was caught with a speck of meth. Somebody grabbed $1 in change from a parked car.
These men all had one thing in common besides being losers. They were sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for their crime.
Not under Taliban law in some backward, oppressive society. They were administered that severe punishment here in enlightened California under our three-strikes law.
Proposition 36 on the Nov. 6 ballot would apply some balance, prudence and logic to the sentencing of career criminals.
"There would be proportionate justice evenly applied while still preserving the essence of a very powerful sentencing tool," says Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, one of Prop. 36's leading advocates.
The three-strikes law was enacted in 1994 in the wake of the L.A. riots and the kidnap-murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas in small-town Petaluma.
But Fresno portrait photographer Mike Reynolds was the driving force. His 18-year-old daughter Kimber had been murdered by two career criminals on a stolen motorcycle trying to snatch her purse.
Reynolds was — is — articulate, energetic, committed and street-smart. He got rolling on a ballot initiative to lock up repeat offenders before they could wreak more havoc. He also simultaneously pushed a bill in the Legislature.
The bill sailed through the Legislature. And Reynolds' identical ballot initiative — Prop. 184 — was embraced by 72% of voters.
The official ballot argument for Prop. 184 promised it would "keep career criminals, who rape women, molest innocent children and commit murder, behind bars where they belong."
Three-strikes has helped do that. But it also has done much more. It has kept locked up for life decrepit old men whose last crime may have been shoplifting a pair of work gloves.
It's not that three-time losers shouldn't be shoved back into the slammer. But for 25 years to life? This state can no longer afford that, if it ever could. Moreover, the punishment should fit the crime.
Here's how three-strikes works: A felon who has two prior convictions for a violent or serious crime — rape, for example, or assault with intent to rob — is subject to a 25-to-life sentence, regardless of the latest offense. It could be pilfering food.
In 2004, there was a ballot initiative to soften the law. It would have been too soft for Cooley, and he strongly opposed the idea. So did then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Schwarzenegger paid for his own dramatic TV ad that showed a cell door clanging and the governor snarling, "Keep them behind bars." Voters narrowly rejected the initiative.
Cooley then proposed a major tweak to the sentencing law that ultimately, in essence, became Prop. 36.
First, however, the 2006 Legislature was offered the proposed revision and meekly declined.