Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Three-strikes changes appear to be working

Mike Ramos delivered a hard-nosed law-and-order stemwinder, exactly the sort of speech his audience had come to hear.

Appearing at a crime victims’ rally on the west side of the Capitol last week, the San Bernardino County district attorney called for an initiative to restart the death penalty and pledged to campaign for a U.S. constitutional amendment that would grant rights to crime victims and their families.

“I’m going to go everywhere I can for victims,” Ramos told the survivors who had gathered to honor murdered family members and lobby for tougher laws at an event sponsored each year by the California Correctional Peace Officers Associations, the union that represents prison guards.

His speechifying done, Ramos paused to answer a few questions about a topic he did not broach: Proposition 36, the initiative approved in 2012 that rolled back the harshest aspects of California’s “three strikes” sentencing law, itself approved by voters in 1994.

Because of three strikes, California has locked away many miscreants who should never walk on this side of concrete walls and electrified fences. The law also ensnared low-level losers whose third strikes should not have resulted in life sentences.

Under the original law, criminals who committed any felony, no matter how minor, faced life sentences after having been convicted of two prior serious or violent crimes. Under Proposition 36, repeat felons won’t face life sentences unless they commit a violent or serious crime on their third strike. The measure also opened the way for 3,000 third-strikers serving life sentences to be freed if their final crime had been drug possession, shoplifting or some other minor offense.

No county was more aggressive in its use of three strikes than San Bernardino. Since Proposition 36’s passage, San Bernardino County judges have released 235 third-strikers, more than any county not named Los Angeles.

“I think it is working out great,” Ramos told me, although he was quick to say the results are all very preliminary. Ramos had opposed Proposition 36 in 2012. Now he’s trying to make it work.

“Ask me in two years to see if any of them have committed a violent or serious crime,” Ramos said. “They haven’t yet.”

What San Bernardino County is experiencing – or not experiencing – is happening across the state. Maybe, just maybe, the 69.3 percent of the voters who voted yes on Proposition 36 made the right call. In a criminal justice system that too often fails, this story might actually turn out to be a success.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s statistics show that as of April 3, 1,631 three-strikers had been released under Proposition 36. Only 23 have been sent back to custody. That is 23 too many, especially for their victims.

The math works out like this: Strikers have been out for an average of nine months, and 1.4 percent of them have been taken back into custody, compared with 32 percent for other parolees who have been out for nine months.

Crunching other Department of Corrections numbers, attorney Michael Romano, who was a leading proponent of Proposition 36, goes through various categories of other parolees.

Of inmates who serve 15 years or more in prison, 22.3 percent return within a year. A fourth of the parolees deemed to be low risk by prison officials are rearrested within a year. Nearly 60 percent of parolees who have prior prison sentences return to custody within a year.

“Our belief when we drafted Proposition 36 was that these people could be safely released from custody,” said Romano, who heads Stanford Law School’s three-strikes project, which took the lead drafting Proposition 36. “The truth of the matter is that the data are showing they are performing better.”

People being released aren’t saints, as Lorenzo Robinson, 53, readily admits. Robinson was a gang member whose rap sheet includes robbery and assault with a deadly weapon, strikes under the three-strikes law.

He received 25 years to life after being convicted in 2001 of possession of 1.81 grams of cocaine, worth maybe $100. But for Proposition 36, he would have remained in prison until he was well into his 60s, at least. Housing a California inmate costs an average of $55,000 a year. No state can afford that, certainly not for a guy who possessed 1.81 grams of coke.

During his latest stretch, he started following the rules, got a high school diploma and wrote for the inmate newspaper at San Quentin. He vows to remain straight this time. We all should hope for his success.

“I’m not saying I didn’t do things wrong in life. I did things wrong in my life,” he said by phone. “But when I caught 25 years to life, knowing I can’t see the (parole) board until I do 25 years, it had a devastating effect.”

Mike Reynolds was at the crime victims’ rally last week; he rarely misses one. Reynolds is the Fresno wedding photographer who sponsored the three-strikes initiative in 1994 after his 18-year-old daughter, Kimber, was shot to death by repeat offenders in 1992. Reynolds believes Proposition 36 will prove to be a mistake. One of the men responsible for his daughter’s death outside a restaurant in Fresno had been out of jail since her murder. He is back in now, maybe for good.

“People don’t realize this stuff doesn’t go away. Twenty years,” he said, weary.

In November, voters likely will have a say on another change to criminal law. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, among the backers of the three-strikes revision, and former San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne are promoting an initiative that would reduce five nonviolent crimes to misdemeanors.

The crimes include possession of small amounts of drugs, receiving stolen property, certain shoplifting, check forgery, and petty theft with a prior theft-related crime. As it is, prosecutors can charge people with either felonies or misdemeanors.

Its outcome will depend on whether the changes to the three-strikes law work out. Ramos said he will oppose the new measure, as will Reynolds. But consider this: There are 1,157 prison inmates serving hard time for petty theft with a prior. At $55,000 each, that works out to more than $63 million a year. It’s unsustainable.