Prop 36 aims to change “Three Strikes” law

Since 1994 California’s Three Strikes Law has put thousands of repeat offenders behind bars for life.

imageKelly Turner was sentenced to life in prison after a third strike conviction for check forgery.

The law was designed to stop violent criminals, but over the years it has also ensnared people like Kelly Turner.

Before three strikes, Turner was convicted twice of robbery and resolved to quit serious crime. But in 1997 she was sentenced to life in prison for forging a check at a department store.

“The amount of the check that got me arrested was $146.16,” Turner said, emphasizing that she couldn’t believe that was punishable by life in prison.

After serving 13 years of her life sentence, Turner was released when it was discovered that the court clerk had transcribed the judge incorrectly, thus nullifying the sentencing.

Now, she writes books and does public speaking hoping to educate one-time criminals so that they don’t end up where she did.

She also advocates for changing the Three Strikes Law, in hopes of helping to free hundreds of inmates she met while incarcerated.

“I know who they are on the inside and I know that their criminal behavior is beyond them, is behind them,” Turner said. “They are just not going to do that again.”

Many attempts to repeal or amend Three Strikes have failed when brought to public vote.

But Proposition 36 could change all of that. According to recent polls by Pepperdine University, 75 percent of people say they will vote yes on Nov. 6.

Analysts believe the change in opinion on the law is due to the poor economy and enormous state budget problems suffered in California.

imageProfessor Robert Nash Parker, Presley Center for Crime and Justice Studies, UC Riverside.

“There has been no successful attempts so far to reform it,” said Professor Robert Nash Parker, head of the Presley Center for Crime and Justice Studies at the University of California Riverside. “My hope had been that with the financial pressure, would finally come the recognition that this was not sustainable.”

State estimates show that California could save up to 70-million dollars a year with the proposed changes.

With today’s economic climate and state budget woes, that’s an appealing number.

Prop 36 revises the law to impose life sentences only when a defendant’s third felony is a violent one, freeing around 40 percent of current inmates serving life sentences under the Three Strikes Law.

But supporters of the current system contend that the extra cash isn’t worth having more criminals out on the street.

Additionally, they say that the Three Strikes Law as it currently stands it a major deterrent for potential repeat offenders.

“People got the message that if they committed a new felony they were facing an indeterminate life term,” said Tom Toller, a lead researcher with the California District Attorneys Association, an organization that opposes the Proposition.

The organization’s takes greatest issue with the proposition over the fact that it will take away discretion reserved for prosecutors and judges who decide whether to charge three strikes or not.

As it currently stands, a judge or prosecutor can include or exclude past crimes from individual case sentencing, but Proposition 36 would end that flexibility.

“There are already defendants who have benefited from leniency and the opposite side of that argument is that the ones who have not, clearly judges and district attorneys have felt an indeterminate life sentence was appropriate,“ Toller said.