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Angry ‘Three Strikes’ Supporters Vow to Fight Back

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His thoughts spin around one terrible image: of his daughter, dead, and of himself, helpless. That image is years old now, but it still pulses pain.

Mike Reynolds uses that pain. It prodded him to crusade for a “three strikes” law to lock up repeat criminals. And now, strong as ever, that image is back, pushing him to declare that he will not tolerate efforts to weaken “three strikes"--even if he has to take on the California Supreme Court.

Incensed by Thursday’s ruling giving judges more discretion in applying the law, Reynolds and other crime victims’ relatives throughout the state have vowed to find a way around the court decision.

“We don’t really have a choice,” Reynolds said. “It’s us or the criminals.”

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They talk of pressuring legislators to find a way to reinstate the original intent of “three strikes,” perhaps rewording it to eliminate judicial wiggle room once and for all. They hint at firing up another petition drive, this time aiming for an amendment to California’s Constitution that would lock up three-time losers for good. There is even a vague threat of a campaign to remind voters that they have the power to elect--or oust--judges.

“We worked so hard to get here. We cannot just stand by and let this law be weakened,” said Kelly Rudiger, who lost her brother to a homicide and now heads up the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau in Sacramento. “We can’t just step back and say, ‘Nice try,’ and forget about it.”

After his daughter was shot dead by a repeat felon trying to steal her purse, Reynolds organized a statewide petition drive to lock up career criminals. His success caught politicians’ attention. The Legislature enacted the “three strikes” bill based on Reynolds’ ideas in 1994, and later that year, voters endorsed an identical ballot initiative by a huge majority.

Since then, critics have complained bitterly about “three strikes"--about harsh punishments, the strain on the judicial system and the immense cost of building prisons for all the convicts sentenced to life behind bars.

Amid the furor, Reynolds, Rudiger and their colleagues have held firm to their original philosophy: Repeat felons do not deserve to walk the streets. Locking them away will save lives.

When crime rates started to drop, they felt vindicated. They figured that the bad guys were running scared--those that were still free to run at all. They figured the law was working. That is why the Supreme Court ruling stunned and infuriated them. By allowing judges to disregard a defendant’s previous convictions--thereby sparing him from the mandatory 25-years-to-life prison sentence--they said the decision undercut the very purpose of “three strikes.”

“Deterrents are only deterrents when there’s a certainty about them,” Reynolds said. “I’m very concerned that what criminals can read into this is that they can somehow squirm their way out of [harsh punishment] in front of soft-on-crime judges.”

Secretary of State Bill Jones, who sponsored the “three strikes” legislation when he was serving as a Republican assemblyman from Fresno, pronounced himself equally “devastated” by the decision. “All the effort to reduce crime in this state has been set back,” he said.

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But other supporters of “three strikes” took a more moderate view of the decision.

Appellate Court Justice James A. Ardaiz Jr., who lobbied for the law in 1994, said the Supreme Court ruling made clear that “three strike” rules still should apply in most cases. Judges cannot impose lighter sentences or disregard a defendant’s prior felony convictions “on a whim,” Ardaiz said.

As they prepare to fight the court ruling, “three strikes” advocates may find some dissension in their ranks.

The law now mandates a 25-year-to-life prison sentence for a felon with two prior convictions for violent crimes, even if his “third strike” felony is a nonviolent act such as a residential burglary or a drug offense.

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Robert Leach, president of the 500-member group Justice for Homicide Victims, did not approve of the Supreme Court ruling any more than his fellow advocates. But he said he would use this chance to tinker with the law to push for exempting defendants charged with nonviolent crimes, “so you don’t land [in prison for life] for stealing a pizza or something stupid like that.”

Times staff writer Dan Morain contributed to this story.


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