Brushing aside criticisms of its cost and potential flaws, Gov. Pete Wilson on Monday signed what he called the toughest and most sweeping criminal sentencing law in the state’s history, the “three strikes” bill that is aimed at putting habitual felons behind bars for life.
Wilson, in a ceremony outside the Los Angeles Police Department’s Hollywood Division, said the bill should send a message to the worst of California’s criminals: “You’d better start finding a new line of work because we’re going to start turning career criminals into career inmates.”
But the Republican governor, seeking to build upon the momentum created by public outrage over crime, said the “three strikes” measure is only the first step in what could be a comprehensive program to toughen the state’s crime laws. He urged lawmakers to do more.
Moments after Wilson signed the bill, the man credited with spearheading its passage began submitting the last of an estimated 800,000 signatures that are expected to place a nearly identical proposal on the state ballot in November.
Mike Reynolds, a Fresno photographer whose daughter was killed by a repeat felon in 1992, said he is following through with his “three strikes and you’re out” initiative because he does not want the Legislature to tamper with the law Wilson signed.
“They are in a position to unravel everything that’s been done here,” Reynolds said.
But the law was greeted warmly by Orange County lawmakers, who supported the measure during its circuitous trek through the Legislature.
“It represents a major improvement of existing law,” said Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-Fullerton), who carried a bill similar to the “three strikes” measure signed by Wilson. “We can do more, and we ought to do more.”
The new law requires a sentence of 25 years to life for any felon who has committed two prior violent or serious felonies--crimes that range from burglary and arson to rape and murder. Those convicted of a second violent or serious felony would receive a sentence twice as long as what is now on the books.
The law also limits plea bargaining and requires that convicts be permitted to reduce their sentences by no more than 20% with credits for working or attending school while in prison. Until now, inmates could cut their sentences in half with such credits.
The bill’s sponsors say it gives California the toughest sentencing law in the nation.
The emergency measure took effect at 2:45 p.m. Monday when it was received and recorded by the secretary of state’s office after the bill was shuttled from Los Angeles to Sacramento by a top Wilson aide. By day’s end, it was all but certain that the first of the repeat felons who will be sentenced under the law already was in custody.
The Corrections Department reports that the new law will lead to a massive prison building boom--20 more penitentiaries by the end of the decade--and eventually increase operating costs by more than $2 billion a year. The state spends about $3 billion annually to run 28 prisons that house about 120,000 inmates.
Although the measure attracted anticipated criticism from criminal defense lawyers and civil libertarians, it also was opposed by some prosecutors, including Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti.
Speaking for Garcetti, Assistant Dist. Atty. R. Dan Murphy said his office had reservations about the bill and would have preferred another, narrower measure proposed in the Legislature.
“It is now the law,” he said. “We fully intend to enforce it.”
Murphy said the major concern of the district attorney’s office is that the law would further clog an overcrowded court system. With passage of the law, Murphy said those charged with serious crimes will be far less likely to plead guilty because it would mean being that much closer to a life sentence.
“The consequences of pleading guilty are much greater,” Murphy said.
Wilson said similar fears have been voiced before the passage of other major crackdowns on crime, including the “victims bill of rights” in 1982 and the “speedy trial” initiative in 1990, and have been unfounded.
Wilson also said the measure’s potential costs have been exaggerated because the estimates do not consider savings from a reduction in crime brought about by locking up repeat felons for longer terms. Those behind bars cannot commit more crimes, Wilson said, and others on the streets might be deterred by fear of the longer sentences.
“I’m convinced that if we are sending clear messages to career criminals, we will begin to see them reform their conduct,” Wilson said.
Even if the costs are huge, Wilson said, he believes the price will be worth it. He compared the construction of new prisons to the building of the University of California and the State Water Project, two endeavors from an earlier era that often are cited as examples of the vision of Wilson’s predecessors.
Like those projects, the new prisons will be financed with bonds, similar to a mortgage paid off over 20 years.
“We’re producing . . . capital improvements for future generations, and they rightly can be called upon to help pay for it,” Wilson said.
Orange County lawmakers echoed the governor, suggesting that the measure may prove far less costly than critics have predicted.
“I don’t agree with all the doom- and gloom-sayers about what this will cost this state,” said Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R- Garden Grove). “It’s proven that repeat offenders cost society much more than it costs to incarcerate them. We will not have repeat trials; we will not have to re-convict people who will be in prison all the longer.”
Even if the law does prove costly, “that is our obligation as lawmakers--to protect the people,” Pringle said, adding that he and other conservatives remain “very eager to cut down our bloated bureaucracy to pay for this and other programs that are necessary.”
Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) voiced similar sentiments: “We have plenty of money for the real purposes of government. It’s a matter of prioritizing where that money goes.”
Meanwhile, Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress) suggested that the true costs of the measure will only come with time.
“We’re not going to be able to know until we actually have a little experience with it,” Allen said. “I’m happy from the standpoint that it’s a beginning. It begins discussion; it begins thought. It’s a recognition of a very serious problem.”
Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D-Garden Grove), who pushed a similar “three-strikes” bill, said it is now contingent on the Democrat-dominated Legislature and the Republican governor to work together to craft other laws to keep first-time offenders from becoming career criminals.
“I think this changes the face of criminal justice here in California,” Umberg said. “I don’t think people will look back and rue the day this was signed unless we completely neglect dealing with the overall problem of crime from a comprehensive view.”
Umberg said lawmakers have to consider options such as boot camps, stricter probation programs, electronic surveillance and halfway houses for nonviolent offenders. Without such measures, he said, “the costs are going to be quite, quite high.”
For Wilson, Monday was the climax of years spent advocating tougher criminal justice laws, which he championed as mayor of San Diego, as a U.S. senator and as a candidate for governor. Although his reelection campaign officially opens today, the bill signing ceremony had all the trappings of a political event.
Wilson signed the measure on a small table in the parking lot at the Police Department’s Hollywood division, which he said was chosen because it had the city’s highest rate of violent crime last year. He sat in front of a police wagon, flanked by black-and-white squad cars and ringed by uniformed officers.
With Wilson were Reynolds and the bill’s two legislative sponsors, Assemblymen Bill Jones, a Republican, and Jim Costa, a Democrat, both from Fresno. Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren also attended, with representatives from several crime victims groups and Rep. Michael Huffington, a Santa Barbara Republican who has helped pay for the “three strikes” initiative campaign and is a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
Standing behind Wilson, and watching from a distance, was Don Novey, president of the state’s prison guards union, which will grow along with any increase in the inmate population.
Wilson strategists have said the governor’s campaign will focus on crime as one of three main issues. The public in recent polls has placed the matter at or near the top of the political agenda. The governor said he has no intention of letting up on the Legislature simply because the “three strikes” bill is now law.
Until the threat of Reynolds’ initiative became real after 12-year-old Polly Klaas was slain last year in Northern California, the “three strikes” bill was languishing in the Legislature, unable to move past its first committee. Reynolds, Wilson said, helped lawmakers see the light, “or at least feel the heat.”
Now the governor is calling for the passage of other bills that would put first-time rapists and child molesters in prison for life without the possibility of parole, expand the death penalty, make it easier to try juveniles as adults, and further limit the use of credits to reduce sentences.
“This is the beginning, not the end,” Wilson said. “The Legislature must finish the job.”
Times staff writers Eric Bailey and J. Michael Kennedy contributed to this article.