In 1994, Californians saw a state criminal justice system that too often let the worst criminals out of prison to wreak destruction and hurt the innocent, only to be sent back to prison for worse crimes. Fresno parent Mike Reynolds had been pushing Sacramento to pass a "three-strikes" measure after the murder of his 18-year-old daughter, Kimber, during a robbery in 1992. Then the rape and murder of Petaluma 12-year-old Polly Klaas -- kidnapped from her home by another violent career criminal -- confirmed the voters' worst fears.
The public was ready. The Legislature was afraid. And both Sacramento and California voters passed tough three-strikes measures. This being California, there was a pro-criminal lobby that warned against the law, which mandated a 25-year-to-life term for the third offense for criminals who had already committed two serious or violent felonies. It also increased penalties for a second strike.
Longer sentences for career offenders? Horrors.
Critics duly seized on state Department of Corrections forecasts, which ominously predicted that within five years, the prison population would more than double, from 124,813 to 245,554. The state would have to build 20 new prisons just to keep up. Within three years, opponents charged, prison spending would outstrip state spending on higher education.
Almost 15 years later, it turns out many of the so-called experts were wrong -- and the voters were right. In approving the tough-on-crime measure, California residents didn't have to pay for an inmate population explosion or a bunch of new prisons. What voters got instead was a law that, for the most part, has worked the way it was supposed to.
Fact: California's inmate count was 171,444 last year -- far below the grim projections. In part because other prisons already were in the works by the time voters approved three strikes, Sacramento authorized and completed not 20 new prisons in five years, but only one new prison in the past 14 years. And that happened while the state population grew from 33 million to 38 million.
Yet critics won't even admit they were wrong. What's worse, they want the public to believe that their horror stories actually came to pass. Every few years, lacking solid statistics, they throw out anecdotes -- like the repeat offender who was sentenced under three strikes after snatching a pizza from a group of children -- to argue that a draconian law has turned California into The Prison State, where petty criminals routinely are put away for life.
Why? Because they don't believe in harsh sentences for career criminals. They want repeat offenders to do long time on the installment plan.
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