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Ray Haynes

Proposition 36: A Fool’s Reform of Three Strikes

In 1993 and 1994, I was involved in the passage of California’s Three Strikes law. Then Assemblyman Bill Jones introduced it in the Legislature, and Mike Reynolds pressed the initiative. I had a role, mainly exposing the legislative process to radio talk show hosts John and Ken, who then created a public outcry that changed California politics for, well, a year. I however was engaged in the discussions and debates about the scope and effect of the law.

One of the key debates about that three strikes law then was what should constitute a third strike. The Reynolds/Jones bill said the first two strikes had to be “serious or violent felonies,” but the third strike could be “any felony.” The theory was that a person who had committed two serious or violent felonies was probably a bad guy anyway, and if he (or she) still engaged in any criminal behavior, he (or she) should be isolated from the rest of us for the rest of his or her life. Some on the left tried to pass legislation that would require three serious or violent felonies before a life sentence would be imposed, but I was persuaded by the argument, made by Jones and Reynolds, that society should not wait for a third victim of a violent criminal before putting that criminal in prison for life. Requiring a third victim before a life sentence was imposed was rejected by the Legislature and the voters, and California’s crime rate was cut in half by that tougher three strikes law.

The wisdom of that position was driven home to me in 1999. Lawrence Singleton was a California two striker. If you don’t remember him, in the late 1970’s, he kidnapped a young girl, chopped off her arms and legs, and left her for dead on the side of the freeway. That was his second violent felony. The girl lived, so he didn’t get a life sentence, and he got out of prison in the mid-1990’s. Because of California’s three strikes law, he decided to move to Florida. Some time after he got to Florida, he stole a camera and a baseball cap, and got caught. Had he lived in California, that would have been enough to put him in prison for the rest of his life. Florida, however, required a third serious or violent felony to invoke its three strikes law, and so Singleton received a few months jail time and got out. A month later, he killed one of his neighbors. Had he lived in California, he would have never had the opportunity to commit that murder.

Now, the supporters of Proposition 36 want to change our law so that a Lawrence Singleton, or someone like him, would have the chance to kill that neighbor, and they call it “sensible reform” to “restore the original intent” of California’s three strikes law. As one of the people involved when California’s three strikes law was passed, I can say we thought about that reform, and rejected it. Lots of California citizens are safer today because California said no to this bad idea when it passed its three strikes law.

We, as a state, will pay a price if we pass Proposition 36. Someone will die a horrible and painful death at the hands of a two striker like Lawrence Singleton, because we didn’t put him or her in jail when he or she stole a camera, or a pizza, or whatever item he or she stole to make it their third strike. They will have committed two serious or violent felonies, and decided they still wanted to live their life of crime, and they will kill or maim or harm someone else. Seven percent of the criminals commit seventy percent of the crimes. These career criminals will only stop harming us when we lock them away from the rest of us for the rest of their lives. Proposition 36 is a fool’s reform, and there will be families and victims of crime who will pay a steep and severe price if it passes.