‘Three Strikes’ Bills Sweep State Assembly


Responding to the public’s election year outrage over crime, the Assembly on Monday approved five “three strikes” measures aimed at locking up habitual criminals for life, and sent the bills to the Senate where one or more are likely to pass within weeks.

Gov. Pete Wilson has endorsed the toughest measure, almost identical to the “three strikes and you’re out” initiative that backers are trying to place on the November ballot.

The Assembly approved that measure, authored by Assemblymen Bill Jones (R-Fresno) and Jim Costa (D-Hanford), by a 59-10 vote. The other “three strikes” bills cleared the Assembly by margins of 64-2, 66-2, 64-1 and 63-1.


Last year, a similar bill could not get out of committee. But after several highly publicized crimes and the onset of the election year, legislators are acting with unusual haste to show their support for tough crime laws.

“The locomotive is moving pretty fast,” Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), an opponent, said Monday.

Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys) said he expects that the upper house will pass “a very strong version” of the “three strikes” concept. Roberti, the incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the bills will reach the committee next week. But he also suggested that the Senate may meld the measures into a single bill.

The action comes even though the cost of the measures remains unknown. Wilson’s Department of Finance completed a preliminary cost analysis of the Jones-Costa bill but has not released it. The California Department of Corrections is working on a more detailed analysis. The legislative analyst has issued an early estimate that the Jones-Costa bill would cost billions.

Jones scoffed at the cost arguments raised by the few opponents, pointing to the incalculable price of allowing violent criminals out of prison to commit more crimes.

“Why can’t we have zero tolerance for crime?” Jones demanded as he urged the lower house to approve his measure.


He also pointed to another number of more immediate concern to lawmakers--a Field Poll that found 84% of voters in California support the “three strikes” initiative. It is an astonishingly high number given that the backers have not completed gathering enough signatures to place the initiative on the ballot.

An Assembly committee voted down the “three strikes” bill by Jones and Costa last year. But Assemblyman Bernie Richter (R-Chico) recalled the line about the definition of a conservative as being a liberal who has been mugged, and jabbed at the converts by saying: “The definition of a conservative is a bunch of liberals who have been reading public opinion polls.”

The Jones-Costa bill focuses on criminals who commit a third felony, after having been convicted of two serious or violent felonies. A three-time loser would face either an indeterminate sentence of 25 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole, or three times the length of the sentence for the third crime, whichever is greater.

Violent felonies include murder, kidnaping, rape and armed robbery. Serious felonies, which are defined in the penal code, include furnishing drugs to a minor and residential burglary.

Mike Reynolds, the initiative’s proponent, has endorsed the Jones-Costa bill, and said he will drop his initiative if the governor signs the bill into law. He began pushing the “three strikes and you’re out” initiative after his daughter was murdered in 1992 by a repeat felon, and after the bill stalled in the Assembly last year.

The other three strikes bills are:

* A measure by Assemblyman Richard K. Rainey (R-Walnut Creek) to impose sentences of life in prison without parole for people who commit a third violent or serious felony. The vote was 62-2.


Rainey’s bill, which focuses on violent offenders, is narrower than the Jones-Costa bill and would imprison fewer habitual criminals. Rainey’s bill has the support of the California District Attorneys Assn., which helped draft it.

* A measure by Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D-Garden Grove) to impose sentences of life in prison without parole for people who commit a third violent felony. His measure excludes several crimes that are in the Jones-Costa bill. The vote was 66-2.

* Two identical measures by Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-Placentia) to impose life without parole on anyone who commits a third violent felony. The votes were 64-1 and 63-1.

The Jones-Costa bill was approved despite a last-minute attempt by Assemblyman Tom Bates (D-Berkeley) to scuttle it by raising the ironic possibility that the bill--and the initiative--could abolish the death penalty.

Both measures state that they do not affect the penal code section on special circumstances, which allows for either life in prison without parole or the death penalty.

But Bates argued that the language is ambiguous on whether death could still be an option.

“It’s written really poorly,” Bates said. “At least they ought to know what they’re doing.”


Jones and Costa, both death penalty proponents, said they disagreed with Bates’ analysis, but said they are considering amending the measure in the Senate to make it clear that the bill would not affect capital punishment. Amendments may be made to the bill moving through the Legislature, but not to the initiative.