Three Strikes Stinks!

Death, taxes and the self-inflicted stupidity of Three Strikes

On a recent Saturday morning, Huntington Beach Assemblyman Scott Baugh sat down with a handful of people, most of them from an organization called Families to Amend California's Three Strikes (FACTS). The fact that he was there-he's a self-described conservative Republican-and that he had invited them to his office and greeted them at the door with a smile was a great victory for FACTS, which has been told its cause is not only lost but is also the political equivalent of a pox-infested blanket to politicians in an election year.Three Strikes was enormously popular when it was voted in as Proposition 184 in 1994. Politicians, with the dull roar of Willie Horton ringing in their ears, have refused to even meet with FACTS for fear of looking soft on crime. For Republican and Democratic officials alike, questioning anything about Three Strikes-its effectiveness, fairness or costs-is seen as political suicide.Just the opportunity to talk to Baugh about Senate Bill 2048-authored by John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), the bill directs the state to study the effectiveness, fairness and costs of Three Strikes-was significant and validating but assumed to be symbolic."I figured a few minutes [with Baugh] and a pat on the head," said Sue Reams, summing up the expectations of more than a few at the meeting. So it was with a mix of excitement and unease that they reacted to Baugh's wondering aloud if "it was too late to co-author the bill." He was smiling as he said it, and the people from FACTS were unsure if Baugh was serious. They told him the most they'd hoped for was that he would abstain from voting on the bill. "Oh, I think I can do better than that," he told them-still smiling-and made it clear that he would be voting with them. Many in the group were dumbfounded, wrestling with how to properly react when a wildest dream comes true."Stunned," said Christy Johnson. "We've been beaten up so many times that I've tried not to expect anything anymore. But when we came out of there, I lost it; the tears just came. It was the best day I've had in some time."The fact that one Republican lawmaker decided to break ranks and vote with FACTS on a bill that they themselves acknowledge is weak and well below their ultimate aspirations may not seem like much. But the fact that it would move Johnson to tears-a woman who has persisted despite being yelled at, pushed, reviled and, she said, fired from one job because of her efforts-tells you a lot about FACTS: they have been forced to do what they can with not much for some time.The smallest victory is significant when you are left for dead, and what happened in Baugh's office would have seemed unfathomable to FACTS not just last year, but a few weeks ago.June 1998. The meeting begins on time, but the turnout is light. A few women and fewer men sit around folding tables. The mood is familiar-with one another and with the stream that flows in from the Catholic Worker house in Santa Ana (no one so much as cranes a neck when a voice somewhere says someone is throwing bricks off the roof); so is the agenda: amending perhaps the state's most untouchable law this side of handicapped parking.This is why they've come here every Thursday for the past year. These are the regulars.Johnson, the career girl scout who says she married Dan Johnson moments after he'd been sentenced to 75 years to life for drug possession. Charlene Williams, who relates how her son Larry got 25 years to life for the $50 he spent on a stolen cellular phone. Hope Nimrod, who says son Max tried to get treatment for his drug problem but always found the waiting list too long or the price tag too high and is now doing 25 years to life for trying to buy $13 worth of narcotics from an undercover police officer.There are others here with stories of petty thieves and addicts, of husbands, sons and grandsons caught in the wide net of California's Three Strikes law. And there was a time when each one of them was new and did what the new people do."The new ones scream," Johnson says. "You have no where else to go, so you come here and scream because you can't believe that this is actually happening in this country. You hear it all the time: 'How can this happen? THIS IS THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!'"The new one tonight is Trudy, who speaks in a near-whisper and makes it clear she'll have to leave by 8 p.m. She doesn't like to drive at night. She's there because her grandson may be sentenced under Three Strikes, and she wants to get as much information as possible. She had heard about FACTS on TV and in the newspapers and figured they were making great strides. But from the moment the meeting starts, her face is in a virtual unchecked state of drop, of "This is it?"FACTS looked so much bigger in the newspaper. This is a few people sitting around a table talking about a bake sale. Going around the table, asking each person what they can make-put Williams down for three dozen chocolate-chip cookies-Trudy is incredulous: "I came here to talk about the law. I thought you were going to get it changed, and I wanted to know when that was going to happen."They try to explain to her that Three Strikes is not going to change any time soon. It's a popular law though, they believe, a misunderstood one. FACTS activists believe that the people who overwhelmingly voted Three Strikes into law with 72 percent of the vote would demand it changed if they were aware it wasn't just putting away violent criminals for life but, more often than not, imprisoning nonviolent offenders. Three Strikes, they believe, was voted in for serious criminals, for Richard Allen Davis, who murdered Polly Klaas, a man so enamored with misery he'd no doubt revel in triggering a law that puts the likes of Ronnie Villa of Anaheim-father of two, grandfather of four-in jail for 25 years to life for stealing five bottles of Head and Shoulders shampoo a dozen years after his last offense."It's very depressing when these crimes are so piddly," Doreen McCarthy, Villa's public defender, reportedly said. "He's just an old junkie who unfortunately has some very old robberies. It broke my heart."They figured that when news of cases like Villa's reached people, news of the legislative analyst's office's report that said 75 percent of second strikers and 50 percent of third strikers were for nonviolent crimes, people would be moved. They thought that when Polly Klaas' father, Marc, came out against the law because he said it was applied too broadly and served no real deterrent that everything would change."I tell people we have to find real solutions; I don't think we can solve the crime problem by just putting more people in prison for longer amounts of time any more than we can solve the AIDS problem by constructing more cemeteries," Klaas says. "These are back-end solutions; more efforts have to be put in to finding front-end solutions." But nothing happened. Studies came and went that called the California law "ineffective," and nothing happened. Statistics showed that while crime dropped in California over the past four years (it had, in fact, started dropping before Three Strikes), it fell as much or more in states that either didn't have a Three Strikes law or rarely used it, and nothing happened. News came that criminals were being released after serving just a fraction of their sentences to make room for the overcrowding Three Strikes caused; a 1996 report by the Campaign for an Effective Crime Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of criminal-justice and elected officials, estimated that to keep pace with the law, the state would need to build 15 new prisons at a price tag of $4.5 billion, and nothing happened.When FACTS helped get a bill amending the law onto the state Senate floor last year, it got walloped, 13-25. This year, they were instrumental in getting another bill to the Senate only to be told by insiders that the most they could hope for in an election year was a bill to commission a study of Three Strikes. It passed the Senate on partisan lines-Democrats voting for, Republicans against-and is now in the Assembly, where it figures to come up for a vote in early August. That's nice, but already there are rumors that Governor Pete Wilson will veto the bill, and they almost certainly won't have the votes to override.That is where things stand on this Thursday, another Thursday. The Orange County chapter of FACTS-there are chapters in every major California city and region-has been effective at getting things done: collecting signatures; organizing letter-writing campaigns, demonstrations and vigils; getting on TV and the radio; and speaking in front of political conventions. The chapter has also proven valuable symbolically, says Geri Silva, chairwoman of FACTS in Los Angeles, "because of what Orange County represents in most people's minds."For all of that, Three Strikes still stands. Mike Reynolds, the Fresno photographer who authored Three Strikes, says that recent polling shows the law has more support today-79 percent-than it did four years ago."The numbers speak for themselves and very loud," Reynolds says. "We found a method by which we can truly deter crime. For the first time, we can sort the wheat from the chaff between those who want to make an honest to goodness effort to rehabilitate themselves and those who aren't at all interested in that."If Reynolds' poll numbers are accurate, it can mean one of only two things: either the people at FACTS have not done a good enough job-or had enough time-to change people's minds, or people by and large really don't care. Criminals-any criminal in their eyes, no matter what the offense-don't deserve consideration. Either way, it means a lot of work for the people at FACTS, who've learned the value of pacing, a lifetime of Thursdays perhaps. They bide their time, building and baking.As 8 p.m. comes around, Trudy is gathering her things together as Dwight Smith of the Catholic Worker in Orange County, suggests a fund-raiser whereby a small file would be hidden in a slice of cake. Everybody laughs, except Trudy. Seeing this, Smith says, "Maybe we shouldn't be laughing about this." Barbara Brooks, another regular, a woman who moments before had said, "My son has value; my son is not a dog," is among the loudest to laugh."Yes, we should, Dwight," she says. "Yes, we should."Three Strikes' straightforward approach, complete with catchy title, seemed to offer a no-nonsense wedge through all the plea bargaining and pandering that many people believe afflict the criminal-justice system. Commit three felonies and go to jail for 25 years to life. But while many people believed the felonies spoken of were for serious, usually violent crimes-or at least crimes with the threat of violence-the fact is that Three Strikes encompasses more than 400 felonies, many of them of the drug-possession and petty-theft variety."Everywhere I speak, almost uniformly, people are astonished what people are being put away for," says Carl Holmes, an Orange County public defender and an outspoken critic of Three Strikes. "Almost unanimously, I find when talking to people, they thought the law would only affect violent criminals."Though more than 20 other states have Three Strikes laws of some type, only California's is so wide-ranging, so "irrational . . . crazy," says UC Irvine criminologist Gilbert Geis. The state of Washington had the first Three Strikes law, not California, but Washington's law dictates that all three strikes be for violent or serious felonies. According to the National Institute of Justice, by March 1996, there were only 53 inmates incarcerated under Washington's Three Strikes; there were 1,477 in California: 131 for petty theft, 63 for receiving stolen property, and 172 for drug possession.And though much of Three Strikes' appeal is derived from its apparent ability to circumvent the criminal-justice bureaucracy, the law actually allows for considerable discretion on the part of judges when sentencing and prosecutors when deciding who shall be tried under the law. However, it is discretion that many prosecutors and judges choose not to use for fear of political reprisals. Few things are scooped up so readily by political opponents as the appearance that a rival may be soft on crime.Ask Mike Dukakis.Or Anthony Rackauckas. In 1997, state officials reportedly investigated whether Assistant District Attorney Brent Romney had asked a secretary to spend county time locating the files of 13 Three Strikes cases handled by Rackauckas, a superior court judge. At the time, Romney was planning to run against Rackauckas for DA. Most observers believed Romney was attempting to make Rackaukas, who won the election in June, appear soft on crime. He wasn't the only one. After Rackauckas reduced the sentence of Ronald Lara of Anaheim, who was reportedly picked up for check forgery, from 25 years to life to a year in jail, Wallace Wade, Rackauckas' main rival in the election, said of the Lara case, "It sounds to me like it's appropriate discussion in an election."In such an atmosphere, it's effective to paint criminals with a broad, foreboding brush, creating an atmosphere Holmes calls "medieval. The public has been whipped up into such a frenzy by politicians that there is no distinction between serious and nonserious criminals. Politicians have found crime a ready vehicle, and the results are really very Draconian."The results, as the members of FACTS know, are that criminals of any ilk are seen less as people than monsters. Nearly everyone has a story of a friend who abandoned him or her once his or her son or husband was arrested. Johnson says she was fired from her job when Dan went in two years ago-her former boss called later and asked her to come back; she said no. "That was nice," she says-and had others abandon her."There's a feeling that if you have someone in jail, you're entitled to be shunned," she says. "You're entitled to be treated like garbage."For FACTS to make any of its arguments-that Three Strikes costs too much money and is ineffective and immoral-it first must perform the Herculean task of making the general public, if not care about these criminals, then at least see them as human beings capable of rehabilitation as well as being loved. In their public appearances, it's important for FACTS members to exude normalness.It's not that difficult a task. Brooks is typical of the kind of person you meet when attending a FACTS meeting. Middle-aged, quiet and unassuming, she is by no means a political animal, though she describes herself as a "Christian conservative Republican." She's not the type who thinks criminals should get anything less than what is coming to them. She works at Fullerton Municipal Court, and she is the first to say her son deserves to do time for his crimes. But life in prison for evasion-a crime known as a wobbler, one that could be tried as a felony or misdemeanor-seems wrong to her.When Brooks attempted to get in touch with her state senator, Rob Hurtt, whom she voted for in 1996, she says her calls were never returned."It didn't take me long to figure out that because my son was a criminal, I was somehow guilty, too, in people's eyes," she says. "I helped [Hurtt] get elected, and he can't take five minutes to talk to me about this law? They've treated me like I'm nothing, like my son is nothing. Well, he has value to his family and to God. His life is worthy to be salvaged."Another Thursday finds Johnson trying to track down Donald Dye. Someone told her the story of Dye, a Seal Beach police sergeant who became addicted to the prescription drug Vicodin in 1994 after he broke his ankle chasing a suspect. To get the drug, Dye began visiting residents of Leisure World under the guise of official business and stealing pills after asking to use the bathroom."None of the victims wanted to prosecute him. None of them were in fear for their safety. This is just a horrible tragedy," Deputy District Attorney John Anderson, who, despite his sentiments, got Dye to plea bargain to two strikes, reportedly said.That means if Dye relapses or does something as seemingly minor as lift a pair of socks or a bottle of aspirin-each previously used as third strikes against convicts-he could find himself serving 25 years to life. Johnson asks if anyone knows where she can write to Dye so she can offer him encouragement and the help of FACTS. Johnson, who lives in Laguna Beach, is undoubtedly FACTS' most visible member. She has appeared on OCN with Three Strikes author Reynolds, and she has organized demonstrations that have landed on the local news. She has become adept at pointing out her girl-scout credentials, the fact that she was selling Princess House crystal when she met her husband. She never excuses his drug use-"It bothered me that he needed it," she says. "He wasn't a bad person; he was sick"-but she's quick to show her bulging photo album with pictures of her and Dan and their pet cat.There are photos of prison visits cropped into collages with hand-cut construction-paper backgrounds, something a young girl might do to remember her prom night. There are pictures of her wedding, which was performed moments after Dan's sentence was handed down. The judge who sentenced him offered to marry them, but Johnson opted for a justice of the peace because "it just didn't seem right the other way." There are two pages of the wedding, featuring a beaming Johnson with her new husband managing a sick grin, his wrists manacled to his ankles.Tall, with long brown hair streaked with gray that she many times sweeps over a shoulder, Johnson is equally adept at playing the task master, of doling out assignments and keeping meetings running businesslike."Christy gets things done," says Silva. "She's very focused, very tough. The type of person who doesn't worry about if it's going to get done, only how it's going to get done.""I first saw her handing out fliers at the beach, and people were pushing her hand away, and she just never stopped," says Dale Schneider of Garden Grove, a FACTS regular. "That got me interested. Some people step up to leadership like they were meant for it."But Johnson is just as likely to break down when listening to FACTS colleague Reams tell her story of attempting to cure her son Shane of his drug addiction through "tough love." Reams encouraged-near insisted-that neighbors press charges against her son when he was stealing things from their garages to get money for drugs. He went to prison, where, Reams tells whoever will listen, "he learned more about drugs, gangs and crime than he knew before."What was worse was that when Shane was picked up on another drug charge, the previous residential robberies his mother had insisted her neighbors press wound up giving him three strikes. "Stories like that break your heart," Johnson says, tearing up again.The truth is that she and the rest of FACTS want people's hearts to break. They know that the key to humanizing prisoners and their plight could lie in the particulars of one case. They know all too well that one case created Three Strikes and another made it law.Written in 1992 by Reynolds, after his 18-year-old daughter Kimber Reynolds was shot and killed by convicted felon Joe Davis when she resisted his attempts to steal her purse, the bill was going nowhere in the summer of 1993. Reynolds decided to bypass Sacramento and use the initiative process, but by the end of September 1993, he had collected just 20,000 signatures.On Oct. 1 of that year, Polly Klaas was abducted from her home by repeat offender Davis. She was later found murdered. The crime stunned and outraged the country. Reynolds visited Marc Klaas, and Klaas signed his name to Reynolds' Three Strikes petition. Within days, Reynolds had collected 50,000 signatures and the Three Strikes initiative became the fastest qualifying voter initiative in California history.Now, with considerable clout, Reynolds again approached the Legislature with a Three Strikes bill. It was easily passed, but fearful that the Legislature might someday amend the law, Reynolds went the initiative rout anyway, and in the fall of 1994, little more than a year after the murder of Polly Klaas, Three Strikes was passed by a nearly 3-to-1 margin."This is a very popular law because it's the right law," Reynolds says. "The only way you can criticize the law is on a case-by-case basis."That's one of the few things that Reynolds and critics of the law would agree on. One of the main features of FACTS' Web site are 44 cases of men affected by Three Strikes for nonviolent offenses, men like William Anderson of Moreno Valley, who 27 years after being convicted of robbery, received his third strike for attempted forgery. And the Web site also tells the story of Robert Andri, who robbed two banks on the same day in 1961 when he was 19. He turned himself in, spent time in jail, and then, working sometimes as many three jobs, raised enough money to start his own business. Success followed, and he bought an oceanfront home in Laguna Beach. One day, with an intruder in his house, he called the police and took out the unloaded gun he kept. A few months after the incident, the police returned to his house, informing him he was not allowed to have a gun and arresting him. He was then sentenced under Three Strikes (though a probation officer recommended 25 years to life, the judge in the case gave Andri five years of probation).But, as of yet, none of those cases has captured the public's imagination the way Polly Klaas' murder did. Perhaps nothing can. Or perhaps it's that many believe, as Reynolds does, that "after two strikes, we know what a person is capable of. The men who put a .357 magnum to Kimber Reynolds' head would have been thought of as just purse snatchers if she hadn't resisted," Reynolds says. "Suddenly a purse snatcher is a murderer. It can happen that quick, and the public is tired of waiting around for these ticking time bombs to go off."Whatever the reasons, the repercussions of Polly Klaas' murder are still strong. Though many politicians have told them in private that they think Three Strikes is a bad law, their public attitude, before the cameras and when the roll is called, is another subject. Johnson remembers "picking my jaw off the floor" when she cornered one prominent Democratic legislator to ask why he had voted against FACTS' 1997 bill only to have him bite back: "I'll vote no again. It's political suicide for a Democrat to look soft on crime."Which is why many believe that FACTS' cause, for now, has little chance of success. Klaas believes that. He withdrew his support from Three Strikes soon after signing Reynolds' petition, but he found in campaigning against Prop. 184 a public that desperately wanted to sympathize with him but had no interest in listening to what he had to say."They voted out of consideration for Polly because the Three Strikes people basically co-opted my daughter's name," he says. "It didn't matter what we said. They rolled over us like a freight train. I think Jesus Christ resurrected could have come out against it, and they would have labeled him a liberal heretic."Asked if he would lend his efforts to the current movement to amend the law, Klaas gives a firm no. "It was just too painful the first time," he says. "They're welcome to use my name, but I just couldn't do it again. The way things are, it'd be like I was arguing against my own daughter."Another Thursday-a nice one-FACTS decides to have its meeting outside. There is still a lot of disappointment that the group's town-hall meeting, which was held in May, didn't attract any press coverage. And there's concern that their upcoming event, a kind of combination progressive political rally, concert and carnival to be held in Midway City, will suffer a similar fate. Johnson is concerned about that, but she's just as concerned with finding someone to volunteer to dress up in the clown suit she has rented for the event."You know, when we started out, it was a lot easier to get coverage," Johnson says. "We were like this weird little group. You know, we were cute. But as we've gotten more clout, more members, we're starting to scare people." That said, FACTS has not achieved its goal. "We've realized that to make a difference, we have to build a strong organization," Silva says. "I remember last year, when Christy and I thought getting 11,000 signatures was really going to make a difference. We've learned."After the meeting, people mill about talking and then congregate quickly around a faxed newspaper article from northern California. The article is about a Fresno City Council member and his bid for an Assembly seat. It cites the candidate's plea of no contest in 1986 to a misdemeanor charge of unlawful sex with a minor. It turns out that one of his biggest supporters is Reynolds, who, the article says, defends the councilman by surmising "the past is the past."Heads shake and tongues cluck; Brooks laughs, but she doesn't smile. Johnson doesn't bother with the article; she's the one it was originally faxed to with "THAT TWO-FACED PIECE OF SHIT!" scrawled at the top of the page.Instead, she allows herself to sit quietly in the dark. A reporter breaks the silence."You know, the people I talk to say that this is a hopeless cause."She begins to cry."This can't be hopeless; it just can't," she says.The reporter offers that he meant it was "hopeless in an election year."She collects herself, takes a drag on her cigarette."Yeah, I know. But we just have to keep going. Every day. That's all we can do," she says. And then she asks the reporter if he might consider wearing the clown suit. Weeks later, Smith tells the group that a staffer for Baugh has requested a meeting with those in Baugh's 67th district who wrote him concerning Three Strikes. For the most part, those who wrote him did so at a letter-writing booth set up by FACTS at the Midway City event.This comes a week after FACTS leaders met with Assembly members Jim Morrissey (R-Santa Ana) and Richard Ackerman (R-Fullerton), the same week The Orange County Register ran an editorial favorable to the FACTS cause under the headline "The Law Strikes Out.""We're not dead yet," Johnson says, ecstatic over the Baugh news. Of course, death isn't the issue; it's life. And exactly what Baugh might say, or whether he'll even be at the meeting, isn't exactly certain. Which doesn't seem to bother her at all. At the moment, she isn't concerned with details. What matters is the step and the symbol. Besides, there will be time for details next Thursday.

 
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