Prop. 66 swings at ‘Three Strikes’ law
In 1996, local authorities finally got their suspected child molester, who was wanted for entering the rooms of girls in Colfax and Cedar Ridge and drugging them with anesthetic-soaked rags.
Johnny Johnson was found with a bottle of veterinary anesthetic in his car in Yuba County. He was also suspected – but never charged – in two similar cases in Texas and Southern California, in which girls and women were attacked in their bedrooms.
Prosecutors could have pinned him with the new crimes and taken the case to trial, but they did not have to. Because of the state’s Three Strikes law, all they needed from him was a conviction for burglary.
Johnson already had two burglary convictions in Southern California, and one more would put him away for a long time. He pleaded “no contest” to burglary in a plea bargain and got three sentences of 25 years to life in prison.
“The result was keeping a dangerous predator off the streets,” Nevada County Assistant District Attorney Ron Wolfson said Thursday.
But that conviction, along with thousands of others in the state, could soon be overturned if a new proposition that redefines the Three Strikes law is passed by voters.
If Proposition 66 passes, Wolfson said, there is a good chance that Johnson will be released from prison.
“It eliminates a useful tool to keeping dangerous felons off the streets where they can prey on victims,” Wolfson said.
He is not alone in denouncing the proposition. Most law enforcement agencies in the state, the governor’s office, all district attorney’s offices and victim support organizations in the state oppose it.
The Three Strikes law, which imposes longer prison sentence for repeat offenders of serious or violent crimes, was adopted by voters in 1994. Serious and violent crimes include murder, rape, robbery, sex offenses, residential burglary and assault with intent to commit robbery, among others.
About 30 percent of inmates sent to state prison in 2003 were convicted for serious or violent crimes, according to the state’s voter handbook.
Under the Three Strikes law, if an offender has one previous serious or violent felony conviction, the sentence for a second felony conviction – not just a serious or violent felony – is twice the usual term. If the offender has had two or more serious or violent felony convictions, the sentence for any new felony is 25 to life in prison.
Citizens Against Violent Crime, the group that sponsored Proposition 66, believes the current law is too strict on nonviolent and petty offenders, such as shoplifters and bad check writers. According to the group, the petty offenders are the majority of inmates serving second and third strike sentences.
Jim Benson, vice-chairman of Citizens Against Violent Crime in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, said Friday that his group supports the Three Strikes law, just not the way it is run currently.
“I discovered (after voting for it in 1994) that it was not what I voted on,” Benson said.
Proposition 66 stands to narrow the definition of crimes currently labeled as violent or serious. Crimes that would no longer be in that category include attempted burglary, conspiracy, nonresidential arson resulting in no significant injuries, threats to commit criminal acts that would result in significant personal injury and burglary of an unoccupied residence.
It would also require each “strike” to be tried individually. Currently, for example, a defendant facing two counts of burglary can pick up two strikes if he or she is convicted of both in the same trial.
“The petty offenders have had many chances to clean (up),” Grass Valley Police Sgt. Michael Hooker said. “I have no sympathy for them. It is a personal choice they make.”
Hooker said most of the department’s officers oppose Proposition 66.
Under the proposition, sex offenders of children 14 years of age or younger or more than 10 years younger than the offender would face tougher sentences – between 6 to 12 years for their first conviction of sexual penetration or oral copulation and a mandatory conviction of 25 years to life in prison for a second conviction. If the victim is under the age of 10, the district attorney would have a choice to seek 25 years to life for the first conviction.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the new proposition is the resentencing of prisoners who are serving life sentences whose third strike was for a nonviolent or nonserious offense, as defined by the new guidelines. According to the group’s Web site, there are about 3,500 such prisoners in the state. According to the California Highway Patrol, about 26,000 inmates stand to be released if the proposition passes.
Wolfson said that current law allows discretion to ensure minor offenders do not get the life sentence and that those who get that sentence deserve it.
“We are not talking about people who steal pizzas or video tapes,” Wolfson said.
While that is true, Benson said, not every district attorney uses that discretion.
According to a legislative analyst in the California Voter Handbook, if Proposition 66 were to pass, the state’s prison population would decrease and the state could save several tens of millions of dollars in the first couple of years alone. The budget to operate the prison system in 2004-05 is estimated to be $5.7 billion, according to the voter handbook.
“The savings will be on the backs of victims, and the judicial system will have to deal with them when they are released and commit new offenses,” Wolfson said, adding that the backers of the proposition have personal motivations behind their actions, such as wanting friends or relatives released from prison.
Citizens Against Violent Crime does not agree with his outlook.
“It is making a large assumption that all of those released are going to get in trouble again,” Benson said. “There is going to be more savings than (new) costs – by far. But I am not saying there is not going to be some court costs.”
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