Same Time, Last Year

Three Strikes foes behind count in Sacramento

This time last year, Orange County opponents of Three Strikes were organizing what they called a night of progressive politics. The July 11, 1998 event—complete with speeches, booths, music and food—had a celebratory feel. Members of Families to Amend California's Three Strikes (FACTS) were understandably—perhaps naively—upbeat. In a short time, they had attracted the media's attention and helped draft a bill to revise Three Strikes, the law passed by California voters in 1994 that gave life sentences to anyone found guilty of any three felonies. Most notably, they had made powerful political contacts, including Huntington Beach Assemblyman Scott Baugh, a Republican who would meet with them weeks after the event.

They were upbeat despite the fact that experts told them real progress was impossible in 1998. Political novices, they'd been told by political operatives and politicians privately supportive of them that the slightest hint of being soft on crime in an election year could wreck a campaign. The best they could hope for was to pass state Senator John Vasconcellos' relatively tame bill requiring state analysts to study Three Strikes' effectiveness and cost. It wasn't much, but it was a step, a building block toward 1999—an off-year in politics—when the real progress would come.

It's a year later, and the people at FACTS are organizing a town hall meeting in Orange on Thursday, June 10 at the Saint Joseph Center. Again, there will be music and food and speakers and booths, including one representing the local Democratic Party, a sign they're tapping into the mainstream. There will no doubt be energy and passion, but there also figures to be a feeling that the movement hasn't moved.

The Vasconcellos study bill, which passed both houses in 1998 only to be vetoed by then-Governor Pete Wilson, is once again before the Legislature. If it passes this time, it will go before Gray Davis, whose signature on the bill is by no means guaranteed. Baugh had planned on a study bill of his own, but he pulled it in the name of party unity when he was named Assembly minority leader in March. State Senator Tom Hayden has reportedly pulled a bill that would actually amend Three Strikes because it became obvious it had no chance of passing. State politicians still have nice things to say to FACTS members but won't repeat any of it publicly.

"I'm frustrated," said FACTS' Christy Johnson, whose husband is serving 25 years to life on drug charges. "The public is so much more aware of what a bad law this is, but it still comes down to getting through to lawmakers. It's shameful that we have to do this song and dance to get something accomplished. And even if we pass a study bill, it won't be done for 18 months. Which means we won't be able to talk about anything until next year, and then we'll be in another election year. It's insane."

It's all the more frustrating for FACTS supporters whose anecdotal evidence suggests many Californians think Three Strikes needs to be modified.

"We clearly see an element of the public that believe the law as it is now is not the one they voted for, not the one that was advertised," said Rand Martin, Vasconcellos' chief of staff. "As more people realize they were duped into this draconian law, they are more supportive of legislation to fix it."

If that's true, it has yet to ring in Sacramento, where politicians, for the most part, tell the FACTS members they support their effort so long as they don't have to go public with their support. Martin calls it the "mythology" that voting to change Three Strikes has the potential to kill a career.

Sue Reams, a FACTS member from Fountain Valley, has another word for it. "Gutless," she said. "I had no idea there was this much gamesmanship. I had no idea there was so little backbone."

Reams, whose son Shane is doing 25 years to life for drug-related crimes and residential robberies, is like so many in the movement who got involved with absolutely no political experience. A year ago, she had trouble getting up in front of people to tell her story. Once she did, she usually broke down. A year later, she has lobbied lawmakers in Sacramento two times, spoken on numerous panels and at colleges, and been profiled in print and on TV, most recently by Fox News.

"You know, we're all doing whatever it takes," she says. "But it makes you absolutely crazy. The egos, the total lack of courage. It's horrible."

Ask the Three Strikes opponents about their greatest disappointment, and they'll frequently single out Davis. Last year, Republicans tried to link him to the Three Strikes revision effort, thinking it might kill his candidacy; it didn't. Now governor, Davis has reportedly said he's reluctant to make any changes to the law.

"To me, the most disappointing person in all of this is Gray Davis," said Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran, who will speak at the town meeting. "This is a guy who got elected with a huge majority. He has both houses of the Legislature, which gives him a lot of freedom and flexibility to simply say in the name of efficiency, looking out for the taxpayer, he is going to modify the law so it does what people thought it would do when they voted for it."

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