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How California’s Three-Strikes Law Struck Out

It was slain by a couple of professors, their students, and a district attorney who wanted reform.

In last week’s election, California voters made a decision that was at once historic and obvious: They reformed the state’s infamously harsh three-strikes law. Proposition 36, the ballot measure that passed with an amazing 69 percent of the vote, changed the state’s three-strikes law so that offenders who have committed no serious and violent crime will no longer go to prison for life. The vote was historic because when voters see crime measures on the ballot, they almost always pull the lever in favor of retribution, not mercy. And yet this time the result was also a no-brainer: The state was locking up petty thieves and shoplifters for life, and given the chance to stop this, the voters resoundingly did.

The original three-strikes ballot measure passed in California in 1994, following the terrible murder-kidnapping of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, who was snatched from her own slumber party. The killer turned out to be a criminal with a violent past who was out on parole. That was all voters needed to hear to pass a measure that said it would keep “career criminals who rape women, molest children and commit murder behind bars where they belong.”

But as the Los Angeles Times pointed out in an editorial this week, it’s not clear that Californians intended to go beyond the rapists, murderers, and molesters to permanently lock up offenders like Norman Williams, whom I wrote about for the New York Times Magazine two years ago. Williams’ third strike was a conviction for petty theft in 1997: He stole the floor jack of a tow truck when he was homeless and addicted to drugs. His earlier crimes also weren’t the work of a hardened and dangerous career criminal: In 1982, he burglarized an empty apartment while it was being fumigated. After he was robbed at gunpoint on the way out, he helped the police find the stuff he’d stolen. In 1992, he tried to steal tools from an art studio. When the owner confronted him, he dropped everything and ran.

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