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Initiative targets revision of '3 Strikes' law

December 19, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Is California's "Three Strikes" law too harsh? A new ballot initiative would lessen the punishment for thousands of convicted felons.

Next year is shaping up to be a year when Californians can show whether they're still tough on crime, or whether they've softened their stance.

With no end in sight for California's budget problems, supporters of scaling back the nation's toughest "Three Strikes" law are seizing the moment.

They've gotten clearance to begin gathering signatures for an initiative that could eventually save taxpayers up to $100 million a year by tweaking certain prison sentences.

Since it began 17 years ago, Three Strikes has been criticized for imposing 25-years-to-life sentences on criminals who steal socks or break into a soup kitchen to get something to eat after two serious crimes.

"You guys want to balance the state budget? Start doing it. We need more teachers in the classroom. We don't need more prison guards," said Amberly McDowell, who supports making changes to the law.

McDowell, who now runs his own successful business, is on his second strike. Though he's turned his life around, he's always looking over his shoulder because California is one of only 24 states where the first two strikes have to be serious or violent crimes, but the third doesn't. It can be any felony.

"I think it's a crazy law. We realize that just a split-second can change the rest of our lives. We're not treated like normal people," said McDowell.

The initiative would change the law so that the third strike would also have to be a serious or violent crime.

Supporters say 3,000 of the 8,000 current three-strikers behind bars today would be eligible for shorter sentences.

"Three Strikes works. Why fool with something that has worked as successfully as California's Three Strikes? It'd be a huge step backwards," said Mike Reynolds, co-author of the Three Strikes law.

Reynolds is one of the fathers of Three Strikes. He points out two-strikers have already committed two violent or serious crimes.

"The offenders that Three Strikes is keeping in are exactly the kind of people that place the greatest risk to us as a society," said Reynolds.

Supporters of the Three Strikes change have until mid-April to gather 505,000 signatures to qualify for the November 2012 ballot.

A similar 2004 initiative failed by 3 percentage points after then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown voiced opposition.

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