Ballot Initiative to Ease California “Three Strikes Law” Fails to Pass

StoryNovember 05, 2004
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Proposition 66, which sought to ease California’s three-strikes law, failed to pass on November 2nd. We speak with LaDoris Cordell, a retired Superior Court Judge who spent 19 years on the bench in Santa Clara County. [includes rush transcript]

Voters in California headed to the polls on November 2nd to vote on one of the most crowded initiative ballots in the state’s history. A 3 billion dollar fund for stem cell research was passed while an initiative to require businesses to provide workers with health insurance failed. Two measures that would have expanded gambling in the state failed while a proposition expanding authorities” ability to collect DNA samples was approved.

But none of those measures captured as much attention as Proposition 66, which sought to ease California’s three-strikes law.

The initiative sought to limit invoking the three strikes law–which gives prison sentences of 25 years to life–to those convicted only of violent or serious felonies. California is the only state in the country that applies extended sentences to any felony, leading to long sentences for hundreds of offenders for crimes like selling marijuana or stealing from a store.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was heavily opposed to the measure and reportedly spent about 2 million dollars of his own campaign finances to fight it. This according to the Los Angeles Times.

On Election Day, Proposition 66 failed to pass with only 46.6 percent of the “Yes” vote.

  • LaDoris Cordell, a retired Superior Court Judge who spent 19 years on the bench in Santa Clara County. This year, she was elected to the Palo Alto City Council.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Judge LaDoris Cordell. She is a retired Superior Court judge who spent 19 years on the bench in Santa Clara County. This year, she was elected to the Palo Alto City Council and she is Vice Provost here at Stanford University. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. What happened? Explain the proposition and what happened.

LADORIS CORDELL: Sure. This Proposition, the genesis for it, is the Three Strikes Law, which was enacted in 1994 and it was enacted two ways. It was passed by our California legislature and it also became law by way of an initiative. An initiative is insurance that there would be a two-thirds vote to overturn it or to change it. And over the 10 years that the three strikes law has been in effect, there have been some dramatic changes and impact on the criminal justice scene in California. As you stated earlier, California is the only state of all the states (and there are 20 other states that have a three strikes law in effect), but we’re the only one where the third strike, which can bring a sentence of 25 to life, can be a violent or nonviolent offense. Other states only have violent offenses as the third strike. So, as a result, California has, under the Three Strikes Law, we incarcerate four times those—the number of those in all of the other remaining Three Strikes states combined. We have 42,000 people serving time under the Three Strikes Law in California and with a population we have of 35 million in the state. If you take the other 20 states with a combined population of 112 million, they incarcerate a total of about 10,200, four times the rate. And it turns out 7,000 people in California are serving life sentences under Three Strikes. 7,000! Of that number, 4,200 are serving life where the third strike was a nonviolent offense.

AMY GOODMAN: Give us an example.

LADORIS CORDELL: Oh, for example, there are so many. And it boggles the mind. People hear this and they say this can’t possibly be. Now, understand, these people, and I’m going to give you some of the third strike offenses, are serving life and that’s costing Californians about $31,000 a year per inmate and this is at their age now. As they age, it will cost $70,000 to $100,000 per year to maintain them.

AMY GOODMAN: $31,000 a year. How much does it cost to go to Stanford?

LADORIS CORDELL: About $30,000. So, that’s exactly it. I’m glad you made the comparison. But let me answer your question. So, we’re talking about third strikes. For example of nonviolence: stealing a spare tire, possession of a stolen bicycle, shop lifting a $70 drill from Sears, shoplifting 21 packages of aspirin, possession of less than two grams of marijuana, shoplifting a tube of hair grease, shoplifting a package of AA batteries that were $2.69.

AMY GOODMAN: Shoplifting AA batteries. This was the third offense?

LADORIS CORDELL: That’s correct—the third strike. So, because of that strike, the person who did this is now serving 25-to-life. Meaning the person had two violent felonies before this and then shoplifted the third time and now they’re out of here.

AMY GOODMAN: And so what was the strategy? What was the campaign? Weren’t you winning before election day?

LADORIS CORDELL: One week before this election, the polls showed that voters were favoring Proposition 66 by close to 70%. And in one week there was a turnaround and, you know, I shouldn’t be surprised by it and I think those of us now when we look back at it know that this was all about money and the media. The opposition, spearheaded by Governor Schwarzenegger, spearheaded by the Prison Guards Union and also by one individual who’s very wealthy, they put together $3 million and bought $3 million of airtime to promote a lie. And the biggest lie told in this, there were two, actually. One was that if this proposition passed, 26,000 or more felons were all of a sudden going to be turned loose on the streets. That is a lie. As I’ve told you, there are only 7,000 people serving life and of that number, 4200 are serving life for nonviolent offenses. It is not near the 26,000. That was a scare tactic. The other tactic they used in commercials was to showcase victims of crimes and all of them were white females. So they showed and tried to scare people to say “Oh my god, all these felons are going to get loose.” By implication, people who are black and brown. And look who are victimized already and these are people who are going to be victimized further. So, it was a campaign based on racism. A campaign based on dollars and money and they completely turned it around in one week. People, unfortunately, fell for the lies.

AMY GOODMAN: How had you organized? How had people organized before that?

LADORIS CORDELL: Well, the organization was very, very good. There were many organizations that came together across political lines to pull this — to make this happen. And there were debates; the mailings throughout the state and; indeed, a very good grass-roots effort. This is one of the few times I have actually participated in recent years in a grassroots effort, where communities, particularly those of color, are concerned about the impact that three strikes is having on black and brown communities. People all across the board came together. It is just that if you don’t have the resources and the money to fight it, the big kind of money, this is what happens.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you go from here, especially as we move into this new Bush Administration?

LADORIS CORDELL: Well, you know, it’s very easy to become frustrated and the day after the election, there were many of us who were very frustrated and downcast. But what it does, those of us who have been around long enough and I’ve been around quite a while, is to say that we need to regroup and look at what happened and to learn from it. And one of the things that will likely happen is perhaps we need to look at Proposition 66 and readjust it and look at what we proposed and maybe take out some things and make it so that there are less areas that could be subject to attack, but it means we’re going to regroup. And this grassroots effort will continue. An effort has been going on for 10 years, since the enactment of the three strikes law to try to reform it. And indeed in California, we couldn’t even get a bill passed to just study the effects of the three strikes law. And that’s why we turned to the initiatives. I’m not a great supporter of initiatives, quite frankly. I think that they’ve kind of taken over the political landscape, especially in California. But in this case, efforts were made to try to change the law through the legislature and as I said, we couldn’t even get a study. So, this is one where I think we were forced to go this route and reform of the criminal justice system in California, bottom line, it’s political. It ends up always being political and people begin to stop looking at the substance and begin looking generally at, oh, you’re trying to change the law and make it softer, which we’re not. So, we’re going to gear up again and fight it more.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Judge LaDoris Cordell, I want to thank you very much for being here with us. Judge Cordell is Vice Provost here at Stanford University and was just elected to the Palo Alto City Council.

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