Three Strikes Now-Taking a look back at the law, how it's evolved

Jul 31, 2014 7:15 PM by Brian Johnson

This year marks the 20th anniversary of California's controversial Three Strikes law.

It came as a wave of crime spread across America, and high profile murder cases in California captured the entire county's attention.

There's a quote hung high in Butte County's District Attorney Mike Ramsey's office. It reads... "To do justice, as no one is above the law, nor beneath its protection." But what about when a law is enacted, so severe and so harsh, that many say misses the mark when it comes to having the punishment fit the crime, unfairly punishing and putting away those who don't deserve it. Ramsey tells Action News Now that's myth.

The early 1990s in California were years of high crime rates, and high profile murder cases.

First was 18-year-old Kimber Reynolds, brutally shot in cold blood by career criminals in Fresno.
Another career criminal kidnapped and killed 12-year-old Petaluma girl Polly Klass.

Californians were fed up, and in 1994, voters passed "three strikes and you're out."

It meant, three felonies, and you're locked up for 25 years to life.

"We were trying to target the inveterate criminal, the ones that were doing lots of crime," Ramsey said.

And the catch for criminals in California: your third strike didn't even have to be serious or violent.
Naturally, not all Californians were on board.

"The archetypical example is the pizza thief," said Ramsey. "Some guy had stolen two slices of pizza and then he got sentenced to 25 years to life. How horrible is this?"

"It was actually a strong arm robbery of some teenagers that he stole pizza and other items from, and his prior was just horrible. He was a very dangerous person," Ramsey said. "So Three Strikes was to be targeted at the most dangerous of the criminals."

Still, opponents argued, this is a blanket law.
"I think we need to get more creative," said Defense Attorney Patricia Campi.
She prefers the term overbroad instead of blanket.

"I think three strikes has a purpose, however it's so overbroad with the third strike being any felony, it's extremely harsh," Campi said.

"It is not blanket in any event, and never has been," Ramsey said.

Ramsey, California's second longest serving district attorney, said for his office, it was always a reasoned and conscientious choice to tag someone with a Three Strikes sentencing.
Plus, Ramsey said California's Penal Code is as complicated as the IRS rulebook.

But, Ramsey said, "This was a tool, and from a pros standpoint, a very sharp tool that had to be wielded very carefully."

Ramsey, for one, said his office has always conducted a complete study of a person eligible for Three Strikes, in what he calls a Three Strikes investigation, not unlike what goes into deciding whether someone should be put to death or not.
He said seven out of 10 times, they won't pursue Three Strikes for someone who is eligible.

"Basically when we're saying 25 to life, we are throwing that person away," Ramsey said.
But perhaps that was made more difficult two years ago, when voters elected to change the law by passing Proposition 36.

"Prop 36 was brought up and passed based upon myth. That's the belief. It's not the reality, it's the perception," Ramsey said.

It was the pizza thief perception, said Ramsey, combined with prison overcrowding, to make a perfect storm. But Campi believes there's another myth or perception out there.

"People get scared and they're thinking oh my gosh all of these criminals are going to be let out in the street and we're going to be in danger," Campi said.

Whatever you believe, Prop 36 changed the game.
Those career criminals with non-violent or non-serious offenses are eligible for resentencing under the law.
And since passed, more than 1,900 inmates have been resentenced, and of those, more than 1,800 released.
In Butte County, 10 have been eligible, and so far, three have been resentenced.


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