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Mike Reynolds' Legacy: Did 'Three Strikes' Make Us Safer? What Were the Costs?
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Published 9 months ago on
July 11, 2023

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The Fresno man behind California’s landmark “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law died Sunday at the age of 79.

In 1992, Mike Reynolds’ daughter, 18-year-old Kimber was shot and killed during a robbery in the Tower District. Joe Davis, the man who shot Kimber, had a long history of robberies, narcotics, and assault, as did his accomplice.

After her death, Reynolds, a wedding photographer, entered the world of politics and policy. He made appearances on radio and television, pleading for harsher penalties for criminals convicted of multiple violent crimes.

Californians overwhelmingly signed on to the tough-on-crime media blitz, fueled by a number of other highly-publicized crimes, including the 1993 kidnapping-murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas in Petaluma.

The campaign promised to punish criminals more harshly with each progressive crime, doubling a sentence for a second offense and life in prison for a third — regardless of the crime.

And in 1994, 72% of voters approved Proposition 184.

“Three Strikes and You’re Out” would dictate California criminal code for decades. The law spawned similar marketing efforts for criminal justice efforts and served as a model for 24 other states, but not without quickly becoming controversial and opposed by advocates for a less severe approach.

Tough on Crime Initiatives Throughout US

Washington was the first state to market the law as “Three Strikes and You’re Out,”  and California quickly followed.

Reynolds’ efforts made nationwide news. When President Joe Biden was a senator, he supported Reynolds’ form of “Three Strikes,” as did then-President Bill Clinton.

In 1994, Clinton signed a federal version of “Three Strikes” in the 1994 Crime Bill. A total of 24 states today have some version of “Three Strikes.”

Other tough-on-crime campaigns used similar marketing efforts, including “10-20-Life,” which mandated minimum sentences for crimes involving a gun, which Reynolds also helped pass.

Political Reactions to ‘Three Strikes’

In 2015, Clinton made a U-turn and spoke alongside then-President Barack Obama, saying the law disproportionately affected people of color and contributed to overpopulated prisons.

Nearly 80% of people sentenced under the “Three Strikes” law were people of color, according to the 2022 annual report from the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code. While Black people only make up 6% of California’s population, they make up 28% of people in prison.

However, Biden in a 2020 presidential campaign speech defended the 1994 crime bill that he helped write.

“In the 1980s and 1990s violent crime was out of control,” Biden said. “The crime bill was designed to deal with that problem. That’s why it was supported overwhelmingly by the Democratic Party, by African American leaders all across the nation, including a majority of the Black Caucus in the Congress.”

Effect of ‘Three Strikes’ on Prison Population

Within 10 years, California convicted nearly 90,000 criminals using the “Three Strikes” law. Eighty thousand were second strikers and 7,500 were third strikers, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Almost 26% of the 166,556 people in prison in 2004 were there because of the law.

By January 2022, 36% of people in prison had sentences lengthened because of “Three Strikes,” according to a study by California Policy Lab, a non-partisan research institute. There were 28,000 inmates with a second strike, according to the study, and 7,500 with a third strike. Of those, 4,700 were convicted prior to 2006.

Nationwide, crime rates of all kinds have been trending downward since highs in the early 1990s.

Comparison of California Violent and Property Crime Rates to the Rest of the Nation and “Synthetic California”, 1980 through 2016
Crime rates have trended downward since the 1980s. (capolicylab.org)

Violent crime rates hit a peak in 1992 with a reported 1.9 million nationwide, according to the FBI. By 2014, that number dropped to a low of 1.2 million in 2014. That number has been climbing back with 1.3 million violent crimes reported in 2020.

Part of the hope for “Three Strikes” was that threat of punishment would be a deterrent.

There are studies that attribute the reduction in crime to punishments under “Three Strikes” laws.

One study cited by the California Policy Lab found that rates of robbery, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft fell faster in states that had “Three Strikes” laws compared to other states.

A study estimates that those eligible for a third-strike enhancement are about 20% less likely to be rearrested. But studies still show 40% of criminals released who are eligible for a third-strike conviction are rearrested.

Three Strikes Affected More than Violent Crime

It didn’t take long to see that the law affected more than just violent criminals.

By 2004, only 44% of strikers had been convicted of a violent or serious offense. Most were convicted of nonserious offenses, including burglary and drug possession.

For those reasons, a total of three propositions would be put to voters to reform “Three Strikes.”

The first, Proposition 36 in 2000, mandated drug treatment for some inmates.

Four years later, voters struck down Proposition 66, which would have excluded non-violent crimes from “Three Strikes.”

It wouldn’t be until 2012 that Californians would vote to keep non-serious and non-violent felonies out of “Three Strikes” under another Proposition 36. That Proposition 36 would pass with 69% of the vote.

Now, in 2022, 71.1% of inmates with a strike enhancement had a conviction of a serious or violent felony, according to the California Policy Lab.

Cost to House California Inmates

Housing inmates costs money, and keeping more inmates longer means paying for health care and services.

Opponents of “Three Strikes” have said it has only inflated the prison population.

At the time voters considered the law, the LAO forecast “Three Strikes” would cost $3 billion by 2003 annually because of the cost of housing criminals. They predicted the law would cost $6 billion annually by 2026. Analysts never took into account rollbacks to the laws and declines in crime over the next two decades.

Ten years later in 2004, the LAO reported the annual cost to prisons to be $1.5 billion annually.

The LAO’s office estimates it costs $106,000 a year to house an inmate. It becomes more expensive as prisoners age and require greater medical care.

Now, the median age for a third-strike inmate is 56, according to the California Policy Lab. They account for 37% of people serving more than 20 years.

Mike Reynolds Remembered

Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer served as a police officer during the height of the Three Strikes Laws. He became Fresno City Police Chief in 2001.

“Mike Reynolds was relentless in his pursuit of Three Strikes and 10-20-Life legislation that served to hold violent criminals accountable and prevent further victimization,” Dyer said in a statement. “Absent these laws, California would be a much more violent state.”

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