Prisons

Strikeout Reform

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It was a tragedy–a middle-aged twist on Romeo and Juliet. In November, a 46-year-old Sacramento man and his 45-year-old girlfriend killed themselves rather than be kept apart for the rest of their lives. It wasn't a family feud that drove the couple to lock themselves in a garage with the car running. It was a minor criminal offense: possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and a small amount of methamphetamine, plus a weapons charge.

According to newspaper reports, the man had just found out that the crime, coupled with prior convictions from about 20 years earlier, had triggered California's harsh three-strikes law. In the Golden State, a third felony conviction automatically leads to a prison sentence of 25 years to life, regardless of the severity of the crime. Although judges have some discretion to disregard minor offenses, the law still forces many nonviolent offenders to spend long stretches behind bars.

Now a group called Citizens Against Violent Crime is circulating an initiative to reform the law. The revamped rule would apply only to violent or otherwise serious felonies, and not to small-time crimes such as drug possession. The initiative is co-sponsored by Sam H. Clauder II, a political consultant in Orange County who worked to pass the original law but later decided it was too severe, and Joe Klaas, grandfather of Polly Klaas, the Northern California girl whose murder was the catalyst for the original law. If adopted, the initiative would empty an estimated 23,000 to 45,000 jail cells in the state, Clauder says.

There have been three unsuccessful efforts to reform the three-strikes law in the legislature, but this is the first ballot initiative to be attempted. The initiative's supporters have until June 1 to get the 420,000 signatures they need to qualify for the November ballot.

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