TEXT ON SCREEN: December 10, 1993
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 12-10-93): WOMAN: It was bodies all over, guys were shot in the head.
NARRATION: In the early 1990s, TV news bombarded viewers with scenes of murder, mayhem, blood and guts. The War on Crime, by then 20 years old, seemed lost.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 12-10-93): REPRESENTATIVE CHARLES SCHUMER: Theres terrorism here in America. We live in fear, and its not Beirut and its not Mogadishu.
NARRATION: But the murder of a California child by a man with a 20-year criminal history was a tipping point, and a wave of anger swept the country.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 12-5-93): DALTON SELLINGER: How could this maggot have slid through the system this many times without somebody saying, Wait a minute, pal?
NARRATION: New sentencing laws called Three Strikes Youre Out were seen as the answer to the repeat offender menace.
ARCHIVAL (STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS, 1-25-94): FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: When you commit a 3rd violent crime you will be put away and put away for good, 3 strikes and you are out.
NARRATION: With crime near historic lows today, did the lock em up approach work, or did it get carried away?
THREE STRIKES AND YOURE OUT
NARRATION: Despite its sunny reputation, California in the 1990s could be a dangerous place. Big cities were plagued with gang violence and drug crime. Living far from all that in the town of Fresno, Mike Reynolds, a wedding photographer, says he and his family felt secure.
MIKE REYNOLDS (FATHER OF KIMBER REYNOLDS): Our greatest effort was to get our kids raised, give them a sense of values. Were just about ordinary people as youre going to find.
NARRATION: But in 1992, their lives became anything but ordinary. Their 18-year-old daughter Kimber, home from college for a wedding, went out one night with friends in downtown Fresno.
MIKE REYNOLDS: As she went to get into the car, two men on a stolen motorcycle came up to her and tried to take her purse away from her. One of them pulled out a 357 Magnum and put it in her ear and, and pulled the trigger. There was nothing I could do. Ive never felt so helpless in my life. She was a sweetie.
NARRATION: The men who killed Kimber turned out to be so-called career criminals. Both had long records and were fresh out of prison on parole.
MIKE REYNOLDS: Im a wedding photographer. What in the world would I know about the criminal justice system and what keeps turning these criminals back out again? At some point, somebody had to do something to keep this from happening again.
NARRATION: Reynolds invited a dozen people to his home to bat around ideas – ideas that crystallized in a proposal known as Three Strikes and Youre Out.
MIKE REYNOLDS: Three Strikes was what this was. If you have two serious or violent priors, the third felony could indeed put you away 25 to life.
NARRATION: Reynolds launched a one-man crusade, but didnt get far, until another crime hit the news a year later.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 10-11-93): TOM BROKAW: There is an exceptional kidnapping story in Northern California tonight, in the small town of Petaluma.
NARRATION: With her mother asleep in a nearby room, 12-year-old Polly Klaas was snatched from her home in the middle of the night. For two months, Americans were transfixed as the media covered the agonizing search for the girl, which ended in tragedy.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 12-7-93): MARC KLAAS: My beautiful daughter, Polly, is dead. Americas child is dead.
NARRATION: Polly had been strangled and left in a field. Her killer had a violent rap sheet and had just been released from prison, after serving half his sentence for a previous kidnapping.
ARCHIVAL (RADIO BROADCAST): ANNOUNCER: Three strikes, youre out, yes or no?
MIKE REYNOLDS: When this tragedy hit, all of the radio stations they just said, hey, this guy would not have been on the streets if Californias three strikes law was in place.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 1-28-94): ANCHOR: Support for three strikes and youre out is spreading like wildfire.
NARRATION: Reynolds petition drive took off, securing 800,000 signatures.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 20/20, 1-14-94): GOVERNOR PETE WILSON: We should start with the three strikes youre out bill.
PETE WILSON (GOVERNOR OF CALIFORNIA 1991-1999): The nation not just California was shocked. It was a shocking crime. It emboldened a lot of people who had sort of given up hope of changing things.
NARRATION: The law passed in California by a wide margin. And by 1996, the three strikes wildfire had spread to 24 states and the federal government.
FRANK ZIMRING (PROFESSOR OF LAW, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY): This was an angry era in American criminal justice.
NARRATION: Crime scholar Frank Zimring says Americans were angry because, despite having put a record number of people in prison, crime still seemed out of control.
FRANK ZIMRING: What was supposed to deliver people from their crime fears, what was supposed to reduce the homicide rate, was the imprisonment cure and it hadnt worked. So that what happened in the 1990s is the transition from lock em up to throw away the key.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 6-20-96): JUDGE: This a third strike case?
NARRATION: While in most states all three strikes had to be violent or serious crimes, in California, the third strike was unique.
GIL GARCETTI (DISTRICT ATTORNEY, LOS ANGELES COUNTY (1992-2000)): What made it unique was that you commit any kind of a crime, the lowliest crime, that made you eligible for this three strikes law.
NARRATION: Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti had originally opposed that idea, believing it would put too many low-level offenders in prison for life.
GIL GARCETTI: It was going to be a waste of money. We know that after the age of 35 or so, crime drops off in men – like this. So were going to keep them until 50, 60, 70, 80 years of age? And even though I spoke out strongly, we were drowned out.
NARRATION: Three years into the law, at this Los Angeles K-Mart, Kenneth Keel was arrested for shoplifting $100 worth of items.
KENNETH KEEL: I had became addicted to crack cocaine at about the age of 20, 21. I figured if I committed a petty crime, the most I could get would be a few months, couple of years in prison.
NARRATION: But Keel had a prior record including robbing people at ATM machines.
KENNETH KEEL: I discovered that Gil Garcetti was the D.A. and he was pursuing third strike cases similar to mine and thats when I realized that this is serious business.
GIL GARCETTI: Im an elected official and the voters told me this is what they want.
NARRATION: Prosecutors and judges had some discretion in deciding whether to apply the law, and Garcetti had become a vigorous enforcer. Keel was convicted and received a sentence of 25 years to life. Ten years after the law was enacted, the data was stark. Nearly half of the three strikes inmates were serving 25 to life sentences for non-violent crimes.
LADORIS CORDELL (JUDGE, SANTA CLARA COUNTY, 1982-2001): This law, I think, did not do what the voters intended. It completely overreached, and resulted in judges having to mete out sentences that were disproportionate to the criminal conduct.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 8-30-94): ANCHOR: Hes accused of stealing a slice of pizza from a group of children at a beach pizza parlor.
NARRATION: The media, which had fueled the public anger that led to the law, now had a field day with the most extreme cases. There was the Pizza Thief, the Cookie Thief, the Bicycle Thief – all received 25 to life sentences for petty crimes because of more serious crimes in their past.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 8-30-94): STONE PHILLIPS: The question thats being raised is: Is this really a good idea?
JUDGE LADORIS CORDELL: The three strikes law ended up populating our prisons, which are grossly overcrowded, with petty thieves and drug addicts.
NARRATION: Across the country, backers of tough sentencing laws – like three strikes – credit them with a historic drop in crime. But crime researchers say the drop is also due to many other factors, including 100,000 new police on the streets.
ARCHIVAL (ABA ANNUAL DELEGATES MEETING, 8-12-13): ERIC HOLDER (U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL): We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.
NARRATION: Today, the U.S. has the worlds largest prison population at a cost of $80 billion a year, leading many liberals and conservatives to call for reform. Some studies show that lengthy prison terms have barely dented the repeat offender rate, and alternatives like drug treatment and probation can cost less and work better for low-level offenders.
ARCHIVAL: (CNN, 8-17-13): NEWT GINGRICH: And I think it would be very healthy for the country and the Congress to reevaluate the whole way weve dealt with prison.
NARRATION: Former Los Angeles D.A. Gil Garcetti is doing some reevaluating of his own.
GIL GARCETTI: The lesson learned from me is that I was the elected District Attorney. I should have had maybe, what, the backbone to stick by what I said should be the law.
NARRATION: Garcetti now regrets some of the sentences his office sought against non-violent offenders, especially mentally ill and homeless people.
GIL GARCETTI: Those are the kinds of people that shouldnt have been sentenced under the three strike law. Those are the people that should have received some help.
NARRATION: As for Kenneth Keel, he is now out of prison and helping other former strikers transition back into society. About 3000 inmates are eligible for release after Californians voted in November 2012 to revise the three strikes law so only violent or serious felonies count as a third strike – weakening the law voters had passed so overwhelmingly 18 years earlier.
JUDGE LADORIS CORDELL: The worst way to enact a law is to do it in an emotional, angry response to two horrific crimes. I feel for the Mike Reynolds and the Mark Klaases of the world. But at the same time, they are not the ones who should be crafting and drafting our laws.
NARRATION: But Mike Reynolds – who fought the change in the law – says even the original one he crusaded for didnt keep the accomplice in his daughter Kimbers murder behind bars. Douglas Walker served four years for that crime, but after he committed another, a judge decided not to sentence him under three strikes. Hes just been released again and is back in Fresno County, where the Reynolds family still lives.
MIKE REYNOLDS: Theres a high probability that I could walk into a grocery store and we could be face-to-face and that could happen. And the question is whats he going to do and what am I going to do?