Opinion

by matt gonzalez
Free Santos Reyes!

IN 1994, California voters and the state legislature both adopted the "Three Strikes" law. Fueled by the abduction and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a career felon, this anticrime measure promised to put dangerous criminals behind bars for lengthy sentences.

As a practical matter, the sporting analogy was an ill-fitting one – most batters strike out a hundred times a season. Nevertheless, 74 percent of the electorate supported the measure because its proponents depicted it as designed to punish repeat violent offenders. What the public wasn't told was that there was already a Three Strikes law in place.

Penal Code section 667.7 mandated a 20-year sentence for a third violent conviction and a life sentence for a fourth one. The new version voters approved changed the law in two ways: (1) it broadened the qualifying first two "strikes" to include not just violent offenses but also offenses deemed "serious," and (2) it allowed any type of felony conviction to constitute a third strike.

While a crime deemed "serious" may sound like a truly bad crime, it doesn't always mean a violent crime. The legislature defined "serious," in Penal Code section 1192.7, to include offenses like the daytime burglary of a garage and purse snatching. Those offenses are certainly worthy of serious punishment, but they're not equivalent to murder, rape, forced oral copulation, or offenses that include the use of a gun.

In 1997, a man named Santos Reyes was arrested for giving false information on a Department of Motor Vehicles driver's license test. Reyes asserted his constitutional right to a jury trial, and since he had two prior felony "strikes," after conviction he was sentenced to life in prison.

Reyes's crime was cheating on the written DMV test to help his cousin, who knew how to drive but couldn't read. A crime, yes – but worthy of a life sentence?

Reyes's first strike, for burglary, occurred when he was a juvenile and not entitled to a jury trial. The second, a robbery, occurred a full 10 years before the DMV case. Neither appears to have resulted in physical harm to another person.

Reyes wouldn't have even qualified under the original Three Strikes habitual-offender law, as neither the DMV offense nor his prior burglary was violent. Even under the 1994 Three Strikes law, Reyes would have faced a maximum of six months in jail had he been charged with violating Vehicle Code section 20, a misdemeanor, which proscribes making false statements on a driver's license application. Instead, the D.A. elected to charge him with the more serious offense of perjury, a felony, thus implicating the Three Strikes law.

Reyes has now served more than six years in prison.

Two months ago, after corresponding with Reyes, former Green Party gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo began organizing a campaign to free him and overturn California's Three Strikes law. Meanwhile, Reyes's appellate counsel, Gretchen Fusilier, succeeded in getting the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to grant a hearing in Reyes's case. Two justices noted that Reyes was offered a plea bargain of four years – which he turned down – suggesting that the D.A. didn't really believe Reyes should get a life sentence.

Progressives must rally to this cause. Rather than punish serious criminals, Three Strikes has been a boon to law enforcement budgets and the prison industry. According to Families to Amend California's Three Strikes, 4,200 nonviolent offenders like Reyes are currently in prison under Three Strikes serving terms previously reserved for individuals convicted of murder, mayhem, and serious sex offenses.

What is happening to men and women in our state – under the guise of protecting the public – is ruining countless lives and affecting the lives of thousands of children and family members deprived of their loved ones.

Sentences should fit the crime. Isn't it time to end this miscarriage of justice?

Former San Francisco supervisor Matt Gonzalez is a partner in the law firm Gonzalez and Leigh. The Free Santos Reyes Committee can be reached here.