In the Face of ‘Three Strikes,’ California’s Leaders Roll Over

<i> Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School and a political analyst for KCAL-TV. </i>

Gov. Pete Wilson’s signature on “three strikes you’re out” legislation won’t end the potlatch politics of crime that has infected Sacramento. Don’t be surprised if the last bill to hit Wilson’s desk before the November election mandates pre-trial sentencing.

For the saga of “three strikes” is a case study of the failure of government and policy-making, and of its leaders and the citizens who elect them.

At one stage, the “three strikes” bill was lambasted by Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) as “overly broad, poorly written and fiscally irresponsible.” Yet, it rapidly sailed, with Lockyer in tow and with virtually no reservations, through the Legislature, the governor’s office and into law.

One may argue that Sacramento’s elec-tion-year capitulation is a legitimate and proper response to voter anger over violent crime. But it’s one thing to make policy with an eye toward reelection; it’s quite another to purposely run from economic and social reality.


That’s what the governor and Legislature did on “three strikes.” In doing so, they abrogated their responsibility as leaders. And by pandering to public cynicism and fear, they enlisted California voters as willing accomplices in the breakdown of the deliberative function of the legislative process.

The politics of “three strikes” also shows the pernicious effect that Proposition 140, which imposes term limits on state elected officials, can have on the legislative process. On issues like “three strikes,” the proposition allows officeholders a free vote: instant political gratification whose price someone else will have to pay later. Few politicians can resist such temptation.

Not since Proposition 13 rocked the Legislature in 1978 has Sacramento been so cowed by a single idea and its advocate. That was when Howard Jarvis harnessed voter anger over skyrocketing property taxes, and legislative inaction fueled the middle-class tax revolt. This time, it was Mike Reynolds, who launched the “three strikes” initiative to overcome legislative diddling on crime bills. And this time it was the kidnaping-murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas that galvanized middle-class fears about violent crime.

But Jarvis could not do what Reynolds has done. Jarvis provoked legislative debate. Reynolds pre-empted it.

In 1978, the threat of Jarvis and his draconian tax-cutting initiative motivated lawmakers to place a more reasonable alternative on the same ballot. This time, despite serious questions of cost and effectiveness, the Legislature bailed out.

To be sure, Reynolds has every right to be heard in the legislative process, even to challenge it. But he has not earned the right to control it.

Reynolds was unyielding in his demand that lawmakers pass the unaltered version of his ballot initiative, or face the issue--and voter anger--come November. His stubbornness short-circuited reasoned deliberation of any policy alternatives. And that still has not appeased Reynolds, who has refused to back off qualifying his initiative. “I don’t want any room for squirming out of this,” he said.

There is a disquieting difference between now and 1978 that does not bode well for representative government in California. In 1978, the Democratic-controlled Legislature had no credibility on the issue of cutting taxes. Nor did Democratic Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. Jarvis could easily circumvent them.


But Wilson and his attorney general, Dan Lungren, enjoy the credibility necessary to shape the debate on crime. Either could have exerted leadership to secure greater public safety without paralyzing the criminal-justice system or causing undue economic pain. Armed with a crime-fighting legitimacy that Democrats could never muster, they might have moved Reynolds and lawmakers toward a rational compromise on “three-strikes” legislation.

But election-year politics prevailed. Wilson and Lungren chose to fan voter cynicism and anger over crime rather than work to redirect public emotion toward practical solutions. Doesn’t that make these two even more blameworthy than the Legislature when it comes to abrogating the public trust?

Today’s legislators--and statewide officeholders--have learned the lessons of 1978: When public opinion is on the rampage, the safe strategy is to duck and take cover. After Proposition 13 passed in June, Brown became a “born-again tax-cutter.” And later in November, a slew of legislators who had opposed Jarvis were defeated for reelection by conservative Republicans who embraced the rhetoric of the anti-tax movement.

By voting for “three strikes” legislation before this June’s primary, lawmakers moved to inoculate themselves against any such voter retribution. Even if the Reynolds initiative goes on the Nov. 2ballot, insists one Sacramento observer, the issue has been “depoliticized”; it no longer threatens incumbent legislators--and Democrats, in particular.


But hard fiscal choices will be required to implement “three strikes,” as prison costs eat up a larger and larger portion of a budget already in the red. It is the height of irresponsibility for the governor and Legislature to avoid their obligation to make these choices. Or, at least, to educate voters about what making a choice will mean: Other programs will have to be cut, bonded indebtedness and taxes increased, to pay for more law enforcement.

Wilson rightly said that the bill’s fiscal impact would only gradually be felt. So gradually, it turns out, that the tab for this new policy won’t come due before term limits remove most of the current players from the state Capitol.

Reacting to the media-driven frenzy over crime, Sen. Lucy Killea (I-San Diego) said: “We aren’t leaders. We aren’t needed anymore.”

A lot of voters and politicians appear to like it that way. Why, then, bother to have a Legislature? Who needs a governor? When will Californians understand that where policy and governance are concerned, there is no such thing as a free lunch? Or a no-cost prison?