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A Los Angeles County Sheriff chaplain prays with Latino inmates at the North County Correctional Facility. (AP Photo/Los Angeles Times, Brian Vander Brug)

It would have been easy for Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen to take the tough-guy stance and oppose Proposition 36, the initiative to reform California's Three Strikes Law.

That's what 55 of the state's 58 county DAs are doing. Nobody can say they're soft on crime; no specters of a Willie Horton.

But Rosen's principled stand is rooted in his belief that punishment should fit the crime. He's putting fairness before politics.

Voters should join him in voting for Proposition 36 in November.

No one wants violent criminals back on the streets, and Prop. 36 doesn't do that. Hard-core convicts -- murderers, rapists, child molesters -- would be put away for life for any third felony offense.

That was the intent of California's Three Strikes Law, which was passed in 1994 following the tragic kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas the year before. Her killer, Richard Allen Davis, was a violent, repeat offender who had been released on parole.

But California's version of Three Strikes has had an unintended consequence. It sweeps up repeat petty thieves and small-time drug offenders and locks them up for life.

This is the only state in the nation with a law that punishes minor crimes with a life sentence -- and 40 percent of the third-strike prisoners in California are nonviolent offenders.


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Besides being unfair, this is extremely costly. Why does California spend so much on prisons and so little, compared to most other states, on education? Three Strikes is a big part of the reason. A 2010 state report puts the total cost of applying the law since 1994 at nearly $20 billion, or roughly $35,000 per prisoner. The cost will only go up as prisoners age and need costly health care.

California has about 4,000 nonviolent Three Strikes offenders in its overcrowded prisons at a cost of $140 million a year -- money that could be used for schools and to hire police officers, who could then solve more crimes and take more truly dangerous people off the streets. Prop 36 wouldn't automatically release those 4,000 prisoners. Instead, judges would review the cases of nonviolent lifers, with a prosecutor and defense attorney present, and determine whether they are a risk to public safety.

Judges could let the sentence stand, reduce it or release the prisoner.

Critics of this reform credit California's Three Strikes Law with a sharp drop in crime.

But other states, including New York, have seen similar drops in their crime rate without such a harsh Three Strikes Law.

In 2004, voters rejected changing California's law. Rosen opposed that initiative because it would have automatically released nonviolent offenders. Join him in voting yes on Proposition 36, a cost-effective way to take Three Strikes back to its original intent of taking violent offenders permanently off the streets.

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