Who Deserves to Rot in Prison?

Two weeks ago, the Weekly's R. Scott Moxley met with leaders in the fight over Proposition 66, the effort to amend California's Three Strikes law: Sam Clauder, who says he co-wrote the new initiative, and Orange County deputy prosecutor Brian Gurwitz, who opposes changes to the nation's toughest criminal-sentencing statute.

The often-tense exchange showcased each side's philosophical view of crime and justice—and who deserves to rot in prison. Here's an excerpt:

Clauder: Under Three Strikes, people are spending their lives in prison even though all of their crimes were not violent. That's not what the public expected. We were fooled. Gurwitz: No, you weren't. Three Strikes targets the smallest percentage of recidivists who commit the vast majority of violent crimes. To be eligible for a third strike, the first two convictions must be either serious or violent. The third crime has to be a felony, but it doesn't have to be serious or violent. Once someone has proven himself dangerous with two strikes, we're not going to wait for a third bloody victim to impose a tough sentence. They've already proven who they are. Your initiative puts violent criminals back on the streets.

Prop 66 isn't going to release anybody. It allows a judge to re-sentence thousands of nonviolent people wrongly put away for 25 years to life under Three Strikes.

Let's look at Steven Matthews. He's committed murder, robbery, kidnapping and raped his own mother. He was arrested in Los Angeles last year for carrying deadly weapons: a two-foot machete and a rock hammer inscribed with the words "Fag Finder Reminder." The DA chose to prosecute Matthews under Three Strikes. If Prop. 66 passes, he'd be eligible for release because without the third strike, the penalty for carrying a weapon would have been three years.

When was this guy convicted of rape, robbery, kidnapping and murder?

Before the Three Strikes law.

Okay, in the 10 years since the Three Strikes law was enacted, all you've been able to do is catch him with a weapon that said "fag hater" or something? For that, he deserves life in prison? Frankly, for robbery, rape, murder and kidnapping, he should have been put away. But not for possessing a knife.

The biggest problem is recidivism. Matthews is a recidivist. Prop. 66 guts the list of serious or violent crimes DAs can prosecute as a third strike. For example, residential burglary will no longer be a third strike unless someone was home at the time.

That's right. It shouldn't. Right now a prosecutor can put a kid away for 25 years to life simply for taking a bicycle out of an open garage.

To think that all residential burglaries aren't serious is absurd.

Hold on, let's finish dealing with Matthews. He's a heinous criminal. But if he's got all those other convictions and his ass wasn't tossed forever in prison, it sounds like some district attorney in the past didn't do his job.

Before Three Strikes, sentencing was more lenient. But let's talk about now. Matthews chose to commit another felony. You say "big deal." After looking at his whole record, most people would say it'd be wonderful if this guy's put away and dies in prison.

I don't necessarily disagree.

But your initiative releases him!

No. It was written to make the system more just.

Under Prop. 66, the maximum sentence for Matthews is three years. He'll be free to commit other crimes.

Matthews did those terrible things before the Three Strikes law passed 10 years ago. This guy did his time for those crimes. And if he spent 10 years without committing another felony, then maybe he's straightened himself up--except for the knife. There's a difference between possessing a weapon and using it. If he used it, then he deserves a strike.

He deserves a lot more than a third strike.

What you're doing is preaching fear. And I share the fear with you on a personal basis.

Then you'll vote no on 66.

No! Fear is not a reason to put somebody in prison. We can't just throw somebody in prison for life because we fear what they might do. You put somebody away for what they've done.

We should make an intelligent assessment of the risk someone poses to the public.

He's not in prison right now for the rape, robbery, kidnapping and murder. He's there for the knife. This guy shouldn't be collecting three hots [meals] and a cot for the rest of his life on our tax bill.

I'd rather pay his prison bill than let him victimize someone else.

But you can't predict that.

He's done enough.

The police can't protect people from what might happen. They have to wait for a crime and then make an arrest.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that Matthews is dangerous.

The problem is that you're trying to mislead voters to believe that my initiative will free people serving sentences for rape and murder.

Your initiative mandates release of dangerous people because we'll have to ignore their egregious histories.

Now wait. It really bothers me that you keep saying that. We should return the balance of power to the bench. This is only fair for all the nonviolent people who were sent away by Three Strikes and don't deserve a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.

If Prop. 66 passes, a judge must tell Matthews, "The penal code allows a maximum term on your weapons crime, and I cannot impose a strike because of the new amendments to the law. You have credit for time served. See you later!"

No, the judge has options. If he thinks the guy's dangerous, he can send him back for re-evaluation.

Under 66, the judge has to release him! Why can't you understand that? [Clauder studies a mug shot of Matthews.] I don't want to have anything to do with this guy. If you win, he's going to be your new neighbor.

No, but if he is, I'll be watching him.

Why would you need to watch him? You think he's served his time.

Because he could be dangerous.

That's why we want him in prison!

No! Our system doesn't imprison people for what they could do. This is America—land of the free. We're supposed to protect people's rights. If he hasn't done something, you can't put him in prison.

Oh, he's done something. He's raped, robbed, kidnapped and murdered.

Have you told me everything about Matthews? Maybe he's got a wife, kids. Maybe he's found Christ. Maybe he had the knife as a matter of inconsequence.

But shouldn't society demand that somebody like Matthews go more than 10 years without committing any new crimes?

How old is he?

I believe he's 53.

He could have committed all of those heinous crimes when he was 20 and when he was under the influence of drugs. He could have done it all on one day. If he did this 30 years ago and now you find him with a knife, he has not committed another violent crime. Punish him for carrying a weapon, but don't use him as an excuse not to reform Three Strikes.

Each inmate serving under Three Strikes has a history of dangerous, felonious, recidivist conduct.

No, under Three Strikes, 26,000 nonviolent people are locked away for life, 10,000 [of them] for drug problems. Only violent crimes should count as a third strike! Why does the public overwhelmingly support Prop. 66?

Everybody's heard notorious stories about Three Strikes. What they don't know is that the media didn't explain the criminal histories of the people you would release.

No. Californians are sophisticated. They know when there's injustice and when people are trying to frighten them.



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