Is three strikes system fair?
Richard Arnold is a career criminal.
His rap sheet starts at age 19 and spans more than 30 years. Arnold estimates that he has spent a total of 10 of his 50 years behind bars. Auto thefts are his speciality, but it was two residential burglary convictions in 1989 and 1991 that haunt him. Despite his inability to stay on the right side of the law, Arnold’s history includes little to no violence.
On Thursday, Arnold is facing a prison sentence of 25 years to life for breaking into an unoccupied South Lake Tahoe vacation home. It was his third strike, and with his past history it’s unlikely he’ll get any leniency. If sentenced to the maximum, Arnold will have to serve 80 percent of the time, or 20 years, before being eligible for parole.
The voters asked for it and California hasn’t been shy in wielding the bat. Since the “three strikes” law passed in 1994, more than 40,000 people have been sentenced for second and third strikes. Of that number, 4,400 were sentenced to 25 years to life. In the other 23 states with “three strikes” laws most states have only enforced it in about a half-dozen cases.
South Shore hasn’t been exempt from strike cases. In 1997 and 1998 there were more than 10 to go through the El Dorado County Superior Court in South Lake Tahoe.
Assistant District Attorney Hans Uthe said he was surprised by the number.
“You expect to find them in an area that is more thick with crime, but we’ve had quite a few,” Uthe said. “The office policy is when we identify strikes we charge them and we don’t drop them.”
A study released in November, by the Washington-based Campaign for an Effective Crime Policy, said California’s heavy use of the law has raised corrections and court costs and failed to deter repeat offenders. California state officials like former Gov. Pete Wilson and Attorney General Dan Lungren credit the law with bringing down crime. Other studies suggest the crime rate was falling without the law.
Arnold said he was unaware that his prior convictions qualified as strikes until he was sitting in court before El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Jerald Lasarow. Both crimes were committed before the passage of the law.
“I’ve already done the time for that,” Arnold said, during an interview in the county jail. “I deserve to do some time, but the amount of time they’re talking about … I’ve never hurt anybody physically that was never my intent. You have child molesters sentenced to less than time than they want to give me.”
Judges do have some discretion to strike a defendant’s prior serious felony convictions. The power is not absolute and it must be found to be “in furtherance of justice.”
Uthe said in one local strike case the district attorney’s office struck a prior strike in the interest of justice. A 40-year-old man was charged with two strike offenses – felony driving under the influence and hit and run. He already had one strike from a robbery conviction in Washington. Uthe said the man had rear-ended another car at about 15 mph and the injuries were minor.
“We struck one leaving him with two strikes and he was sentenced to six years,” Uthe said.
Local judges have also exercised their own discretion in some cases. Donald Spencer was charged with failing to register as a sex offender. He hadn’t been in trouble since his initial conviction in 1990 and he registered when he was initially released. Uthe said Spencer hadn’t changed locations, but a new law requiring offenders to register every year caught him off guard.
“This was a case with someone who obviously wasn’t trying to get around the law. As soon as he was informed he came in and registered and turned himself in,” Uthe said. “Judge Kingsbury struck the prior strike in the case and he was sentenced to 90 days in the county jail with probation.”
Arnold isn’t the first third striker to come through South Shore’s courts. John Opollo, 55, knew he faced 25 years to life if caught again, but thought he was in Nevada when he robbed a local Bank of America branch in June of 1996. He was wrong. Opollo’s now serving his 25 to life term.
Many voters believed the law was mostly intended for violent criminals. It was passed during the public uproar over the murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas. Klaas was kidnapped from her home in Petaluma and killed by a man with a long criminal record.
Arnold’s history of property crime doesn’t fit many people’s images of a third striker. Arnold takes responsibility for his actions. He was arrested in 1996 in Nevada for stealing a car. While talking with Nevada investigators he confessed to the burglary in South Lake Tahoe. Arnold said he found it hard to not violate his parole, once out of jail.
“It’s real hard to get out of the system. I’m not blaming society. I can’t. I’m the one who put myself here,” Arnold said. “I admit that I need to pay for my crimes, but why should I get more time than someone who killed somebody. I hope people come to the realization that there’s something wrong with that. I keep thinking about 20 or some years and it’s scary.”
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