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3 Strikes Opponent Still in the Game

When the U.S. Supreme Court slams the door in your face, which Christine Johnson heard and felt Wednesday night all the way down in San Juan Capistrano, it usually does so with a force that says, “Don’t bother coming back again.”

It seemed appropriate on Thursday, then, to ask Johnson if the efforts to amend California’s three-strikes law -- and possibly free her husband early from state prison -- are kaput.

“Not at all,” says Johnson, an activist in the three-strikes reform movement for several years. She doesn’t say that out of boundless optimism; it’s just that she feels that reform of the off-kilter law must be around the next corner. Or the next.

The high court upheld the constitutionality of the law, which can send people to prison for life for a third felony -- even if it is nonviolent. Reformers, using polls to back them up, argue that Californians want to send only violent or serious felons away for life -- not those whose third strike is of a lesser nature.

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Johnson, a buyer for a food-service equipment dealer, says she senses a definite shift in the public’s mood. “It used to be that every place I’d go, people would look at me like I was dirty and smelled bad,” she says, referring to them finding out that not only was she married to a three-striker but that she also wanted to change the law that voters approved in 1994. “It’s not that way anymore. People have a much clearer understanding of what it is.”

Her husband, Dan, whom she married in 1996 while he was in prison, got his third strike after being convicted in 1994 of possessing cocaine with intent to sell it. His first two strikes came in a single robbery years earlier. He is serving 28 years to life.

Johnson says her husband phoned her Wednesday after hearing of the court’s decision. “My first question,” Christine says, “was ‘Are you OK?’ He said, ‘Yeah, but are you OK?’ It usually hits me worse than it does him, because he kind of steels himself. I don’t think it hit me until early this morning, and the tears started coming because of the reality of it. We have to work harder. We were hoping this could be the end, that we would be done with it.”

After California pioneered three-strikes laws, 25 states followed suit -- but all specified that the crimes be serious or violent, says Los Angeles Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg. She has introduced AB 112, which if passed would put such a version before state voters in 2004. The bill would allow some people already behind bars, under certain circumstances, to have their sentences reduced.

The rest of the country thinks we’re nuts, but it is really crazy that California, of all places, is so draconian with three strikes. Especially at a time when prisons are jammed and, according to Goldberg, it costs $27,000 a year to house each inmate.

In recent years, legislative attempts to amend the original three-strikes initiative have fizzled. Goldberg won’t predict success in the Legislature but says a state poll indicated that two-thirds of California voters support a change to make the law apply only to serious or violent crimes. Nor, she says, has any group to which she’s spoken opposed the change.

But will it happen?

“People are more aware of exactly what three strikes is,” Johnson says. “When we first got it nine years ago, it was sold to us as putting away violent criminals. No one was aware that it was putting minor offenders away for life.”

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Goldberg needs 50% plus one in both houses to put the bill on Gov. Gray Davis’ desk. If he signs it, state voters can have at it next year.

Johnson says her glumness has passed. “Yesterday was a day to feel this is wrong. Now we have to get past that and go do what we have to do. I mean, this is ridiculous.”

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821, at dana.parsons@latimes.com or at The Times’ Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.

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