Three Strikes: The Legacy of Opportunism


“The Legacy: Murder and Media, Politics and Prison.” A film by Michael J. Moore. To be broadcast on the Public Broadcasting System beginning June 1.

Modern readers of the novel “Moll Flanders” are properly horrified when the heroine is condemned to the gallows for merely stealing a bolt of cloth. But “Moll Flanders” was written over 200 years ago; things are different now, aren’t they?

Nowadays, doesn’t law enforcement adhere to the dictum that “the punishment should fit the crime?”

Not in California! In that state, shop-lifting a bolt of cloth-or a loaf of bread, for that matter-can land a person in prison for the rest of his or her life.

Back in 1993, proponents of the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law (Proposition 184 on the California ballot) promised voters that it would keep violent criminals off the street.

The language of the proposed law seemed simple: A convicted felon would receive triple the time of a normal sentence for his or her second crime and a mandatory 25 years to life for the third crime.

But today, 80 percent of the prisoners who are now serving maximum sentences under Three Strikes have been charged with non-violent, and relatively minor, crimes. Merely being caught with an ounce of marijuana can send a defendant to prison for life.

A year ago, 20 percent of the 160,000 prisoners in California’s prison system had been locked up under the Three Strikes law. As of March 1998, that percentage rose to an incredible 28 percent!

Some 20 new facilities are under construction in the state to handle the mushrooming population of prisoners.

“The rise in the prison population,” San Francisco filmmaker Michael J. Moore stresses, “has nothing to do with the the rate of crime; it has to do with the length of sentencing.”

Moore’s film, “The Legacy,” starts off with footage of two headline-grabbing tragedies: In 1992, 18-year-old Kimber Reynolds was shot and killed by a mugger in Fresno, Calif. A year later, 12-year-old Polly Klaas was kidnapped from her Petaluma, Calif., home and murdered.

Both crimes were carried out by people who had already spent time in prison. Kimber’s father, Mike Reynolds, began to push for a new law to get such “repeat offenders” off the streets.

Reynolds began a campaign to get a ballot measure (Proposition 184) passed, which would authorize the California legislature to enact the Three Strikes Law.

At first, the campaign was a dud. No elected politician-from Gov. Wilson on down-wanted to become identified with such a drastic measure. However, soon after the Polly Klaas murder came to light, Reynolds was able to enlist Polly’s father, Marc, in his ballot crusade.

“The Legacy” documents how the Prop. 184 campaign was catapulted into the headlines, fueled by the media frenzy around the Polly Klaas affair.

That same year, according to the Center for Media and Public affairs, coverage of murders tripled on national TV network news. This helped to instill new fears among the public in regard to murders and violence.

One by one, Democratic and Republican politicians in California began to sense which way the wind was blowing; they quickly reversed their previous positions and rushed in to endorse Prop. 184.

“The Legacy” features interviews with knuckleheads like California assembly member Bill Jones, one of the authors of Prop. 184, who milked the growing anti-crime hysteria to get himself elected secretary of state.

Funds for the Prop. 184 campaign poured in from groups like the National Rifle Association and the Prison Guards Association. In 150 days, Prop. 184 gathered 400,000 signatures, to become the fastest qualifying ballot measure in state history. At election time, 72 percent voted their approval.

Just a month before the election, however, Marc Klaas-as well as his father, Joe, who had also been a spokesperson for the Prop. 184 campaign-retracted their support. The Klaas family, on a closer reading of the initiative, realized that Three Strikes would fill the prisons with pot-smokers and petty thieves instead of the violent criminals who were its purported target.

Yet once Marc Klaas began to speak out against Three Strikes, the big-business media virtually ignored him. Gov. Wilson even chastised Polly’s father by saying, “You don’t realize how the victims feel!”

Now, however, some Three Strikes cases have begun to find their way into the major media. (For example, the May 26 San Francisco Examiner has an article about a man who was given a life sentence for stealing two pairs of shoes from a college frat house.)

At the same time, some politicians are starting to squirm as taxpayers raise questions about Three Strikes and the millions of dollars lavished on new prison construction. One Democratic Party assemblyman, John Vasconcellos, is proposing a one-year “advisory commission” to study the costs and benefits of the law.

But Michael Moore points out that proposals of this sort are merely designed to “provide political cover” to allow legislators to “vote their conscience while still supporting Three Strikes.”

The entire prison and court system must be dismantled. The struggle to achieve this can only come from the masses of people who feel cheated by the system and are enraged when their neighbors and sons and daughters disappear into a prison cell for the rest of their lives.

People like this will be viewing “The Legacy” on television this month. “This is not a film you watch and you leave the theater or house and it’s over,” Moore told a reporter for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. “Rather, it’s a tool to activate people.”

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