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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, we begin a series of stories on one of the toughest laws in the country. It sent thousands of people to prison, some of them for life. We're talking about California's three-strikes law. Passed 15 years ago, it still has many backers, but critics say three strikes goes too far.

NPR's Ina Jaffe has been looking at the law's impact and she joins me now here at NPR West. Ina, after 15 years now, why is California's three-strikes law still so controversial?

INA JAFFE: Melissa, it's because the third strike doesn't just apply to violent or serious crimes. Anyone who's had two violent or serious crimes somewhere in their past, the third strike can be any felony. There are two dozen states that have laws similar to this. California is the only one that imposes such a severe penalty, 25 years to life, for some low-level offenses.

BLOCK: And take us back. How did California's three-strikes law come about?

JAFFE: It was the idea of a man named Mike Reynolds. He lives in Fresno. He's not a politician. In fact, he's a wedding photographer. The three-strikes law arose out of a personal tragedy. It was the murder of his 18-year-old daughter Kimber(ph). As she lay dying, Reynolds made this wow.

Mr. MIKE REYNOLDS: If I could do anything to prevent this from happening to other kids, I would do everything I could. And I'm still trying to keep that promise today.

JAFFE: In 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.

Mr. REYNOLDS: 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.

JAFFE: Reynolds began working on a three-strikes ballot initiative after he learned that the men responsible for Kimber's murder were both repeat offenders, and there seemed to be a lot of them out there.

Unidentified Man #1: But first, in Northern California, a major break in the search for 12-year-old Polly Klaas, the Petaluma girl, abducted from a slumber party two months ago.

JAFFE: Polly Klaas was kidnapped about a year and a half after Kimber Reynolds' murder. The Klaas family used TV 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.

Unidentified Man #2: This individual is currently being investigated as a suspect in the Polly Klaas kidnapping case. He has not yet been charged in this case.

JAFFE: But, Davis eventually was charged and convicted of raping and murdering Polly Klaas. Those were his final criminal acts in a long list dating back to his childhood, a familiar tale to Mike Reynolds.

Mr. REYNOLDS: It became apparent that the system itself was re-releasing the same offenders over and over again.

JAFFE: 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 a second job.

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

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

Ms. SUE REAMS: They considered my son the lookout.

JAFFE: And that was Shane Reams' third strike. He's one of about 3,000 people now doing 25-to-life for nonviolent crimes: shoplifting, auto theft, drug possession and so on. And each of those prisoners costs the state more than $48,000 a year. In Shane's case, his third strike came about partly because of a decision his mother made years before when she noticed some things missing from her house.

Ms. REAMS: Some antique model cars that my husband had, some money, jewelry.

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

Ms. REAMS: Tough love tells you that you take a stand. So I took a stand.

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

Ms. REAMS: And I said, you need to turn yourself in, maybe you'll get a drug program. You need a drug program. And I drove him to the Irvine Police Department and he went in and told them what he had done.

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

Ms. REAMS: I'm angry with myself. I feel terribly guilty. I guess, that's why I've worked so long to try and change the law.

JAFFE: That effort nearly succeeded five years ago. Proposition 66 would've 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. Then this commercial began running.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): Under Proposition 66, 26,000 dangerous criminals will be released from prison: child molesters, rapists, murderers.

JAFFE: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was all over the air waves denouncing Prop. 66. And back then, he was pretty popular.

Gov. SCHWARZENEGGER: Vote no on 66. Keep them behind bars.

JAFFE: The initiative was defeated, but Sue Reams is still hoping to change the law and get her son out of prison.

Ms. REAMS: He went in there at 27 years old. He's now 40, almost 41. That's been his life — and ours too.

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

Mr. REYNOLDS: All they have to do is stop doing crime. That's all we ask. And they'll never be charged under three strikes. I don't think that's too much to ask.

JAFFE: 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 Mike Reynolds' life years ago has also changed the lives of thousands of people in California.

BLOCK: And, Ina, one more thing here: Are there exemptions to the three-strikes law? I mean, are there cases where there would be extenuating circumstances they might take into account?

JAFFE: Well, actually there can be. The law gives prosecutors the option of ignoring a prior offense, to keep someone from reaching that third strike. So, supporters of the law say that makes it more fair and more humane. But critics of the three-strikes law say it's resulted in unequal justice, that similar offenses can be treated differently depending on where you go to trial. And tomorrow, we're going to look at two counties in California that have very different approaches to enforcing the three-strikes law.

BLOCK: Okay, Ina, thanks so much.

JAFFE: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Ina Jaffe with the first in her series of reports on California's three-strikes law.

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