Listen: Two Torn Families Show Flip Side Of 3 Strikes Law

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NPR All Things Considered

October 28, 2009

Fifteen years ago, California voters passed the strictest three strikes sentencing law in the nation. It doubled the penalties for second felonies that were serious or violent. The so-called third strike carries a mandatory prison sentence of 25 years to life.

About two dozen states have similar laws. But only California counts any felony as a third strike, not just a serious or violent one.

The law was the result of a deathbed promise Mike Reynolds, of Fresno, Calif., made to his 18-year-old daughter, Kimber, after she was fatally shot.

“It may have sounded like an idle promise at the time, but I promised her that if I could do anything to prevent this from happening to other kids, I would do everything I could,” Reynolds says. “And I’m still trying to keep that promise today.”

The Reynolds Story

In June of 1992, Kimber Reynolds was leaving a popular local restaurant, when a couple of guys came by on a motorbike and tried to grab her purse.

“Then one of the men — without warning, literally, without provocation — pulled out a .357 Magnum, which is one of the most powerful handguns in the world, and placed it in her ear and pulled the trigger,” Reynolds says. “Executed her on the spot.”

Kimber was rushed to the hospital. Twenty-six hours after she was shot, she died.

Reynolds learned that the men responsible for Kimber’s murder were both repeat offenders. In those days, there seemed to be a lot of them out there.

Polly Klaas, from Petaluma, Calif., was kidnapped from a slumber party about a year and a half after Kimber Reynolds’ murder. The Klaas family used television and the Internet to keep Polly’s story in the news as authorities continued their search. Two months after her disappearance, the police announced the arrest of Richard Allen Davis.

Davis eventually was charged with and convicted of raping and murdering 12-year-old Polly. Those were his final criminal acts in a long list dating back to his childhood.

It was a familiar tale to Reynolds.

“It became apparent that the system itself was re-releasing the same offenders over and over again,” he says.

The voters seemed to think so too. Reynolds had no trouble getting enough signatures to get his three strikes initiative on the ballot. It passed overwhelmingly.

But to this day Reynolds sees criticism and attacks on his achievement coming from many quarters. Defending three strikes has become his second job.

“I never dreamed that this would require the long-term maintenance that it has demanded,” Reynolds says. “We find attempts to undo this law, other initiatives placed on the ballot to literally gut the law. It has become a life-changing event for us.”

‘I Feel Terribly Guilty’

It’s also been a life-changing event for Sue Reams, but for a different reason. Her son Shane is in prison, doing 25 years to life for being with a friend when the friend sold $20 worth of cocaine to an undercover cop.

“They considered my son the lookout,” Reams says.

And that was Shane’s third strike. He’s one of 3,000 people doing 25 years to life for nonviolent crimes, such as shoplifting, auto theft or possessing small amounts of drugs. And each of those prisoners costs the state more than $48,000 a year.

Shane’s third strike came about partly because of a decision his mother made years before when she noticed some things missing from her house — her husband’s antique model cars, money, jewelry.

She figured that Shane took the stuff to get money for drugs. He’d had a problem with that since his teens. And Reams tried to deal with it by practicing tough love.

“Tough love tells you that you take a stand,” she says. “So I, I took a stand.”

And she called the police. Shane had also stolen some stuff from a neighbor’s house and Reams persuaded her neighbor to press charges as well. Then she gave Shane the news.

“And I said, ‘You need to turn yourself in, maybe you’ll get a drug program. You need a drug program,’ ” she says. “I drove him to the Irvine Police Department and he went in and told them what he had done.”

But instead of getting a drug program, Shane was charged with two counts of residential burglary. He did some time in prison. And years later, when he got picked up on that drug charge, the burglary convictions counted as his first two strikes.

“I’m angry with myself,” Reams says. “I feel terribly guilty. I guess that’s why I’ve worked so long to try and change the law.”

An Initiative To Overturn Three Strikes Defeated

That effort nearly succeeded five years ago. Proposition 66 would have required a third strike to be a serious or violent crime. The measure was leading in the polls until a couple of weeks before the election.

At the time, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger began appearing in a TV commercial denouncing the ballot measure.

“Under Proposition 66, 26,000 dangerous criminals will be released from prison, child molesters, rapists, murderers,” he said. “Vote ‘No’ on 66. Keep them behind bars.”

Schwarzenegger was popular at the time, and the ads aired constantly. The initiative was defeated, but Reams still hopes to change the law and get her son out of prison.

“He went in there at 27 years old. He’s now 40, now almost 41. So that’s been his life — and ours too,” she says.

But Reynolds spends just as much energy working to preserve the law that Reams hates. Repeat offenders, he says, get exactly what they deserve.

“All they have to do is stop doing crime,” he says. “That’s all we ask. And they’ll never be charged under three strikes. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

In the 15 years since three strikes was passed, crime has declined significantly in California, as it has across the nation. Reynolds credits the law for that. Independent studies, however, have generally found that three strikes has not been a major factor.

One thing that’s beyond dispute, though, is that the shocking crime that changed Reynolds’ life years ago has also changed thousands of people’s lives in California.


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