Proposition 66 Debate (3 Strikes Reform)
YES: Jim Benson, Vice Chairman, Citizens Against Violent Crime
NO: Steve Ipsen, President, Association of Deputy District Attorneys (L.A. County)

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor

Sunday, October 31, 2004
(Television interview conducted October 14, 2004)

Jim Benson Steve Ipsen     "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmakers are Jim Benson (left), vice chairman of Citizens Against Violent Crime, speaking for the "Yes On 66" campaign; and Steven J. Ipsen (right), president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys for Los Angeles County, speaking for the "No On 66" campaign.
    The debate was conducted Oct. 14. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: What does Proposition 66 do?

Benson: In simplistic terms, it revises the three strikes law so that it targets violent and serious crimes only; not nonviolent, non-serious crimes such as shoplifting, receiving stolen property, simple drug possession. And it provides a one-time resentencing procedure for those who qualify for that.

Ipsen: Gov. Schwarzenegger says Proposition 66 does not fine-tune three strikes; it guts it. ... This is the most deceptive — and according to the California District Attorneys Association, most dangerous — proposition we've seen. It doesn't fine-tune it. Over half of those who have gotten third-strike sentences will be released into our streets. Not just petty thieves; we're talking about child molesters, rapists, murderers. This guy (Benson) knows it, and he's funded by Jerry Keenan, who put this on the ballot using a million and a half of his own bucks to get his son out.
    This is designed to put criminals on the streets. Our concern is, kids will be molested who would otherwise be safe, people will be murdered who would otherwise be safe by a good law that has judicial discretion. Judges reviewed every single guy that put in and decided the prosecutor's right, he needs 25 to life. They want to undo it and let as many people out as possible, and that's what they're going to do: 26,000 released if this proposition passes. Our nightmare.

Signal: Steve, tell us about the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, and what prompted your personal interest in stopping Proposition 66.

Ipsen: Los Angeles County has about 900 prosecutors. My association has 730 members. We're all dedicated to justice. A prosecutor's duty is not just to prosecute; we dismiss cases where there are innocent individuals, we refuse to prosecute. We use our discretion in having the right plea negotiation. On a daily basis, prosecutors review third-strike cases, and on a daily basis they strike strikes that we don't seek life for everyone.
    In fact, prosecutors in this state — in the last year, two million crimes committed, many of them serious and violent; 200,000 felony prosecutions. These guys are complaining because 401 were deemed to be so serious, so violent, because of their records, they needed 25 to life. This law is being implemented appropriately. It is judicious and it is keeping us safe. That's why our crime rate has dropped by 43 percent by its implementation. It's going to shoot back up. They know it.

Signal: Jim, tell us about Citizens Against Violent Crime, and what sparked your interest in changing three strikes.

Benson: In '94 I voted for three strikes. I voted for a three strikes law, not a two-strikes law, not one that targeted nonviolent, non-serious offenders — and that is not what we ended up with. Now we have a 10-year track record to look at on the implementation of three strikes. And in the counties that did not enforce it, except at a very minimal basis, for nonviolent, non-serious crime, the crime rate dropped the same 43 percent on average as the other counties that did enforce it strictly. The key difference was, in those counties, when it was targeted to violent and serious crimes — looking at the numbers from 1994 to 2002, the violent crime rate dropped 23 percent more in those counties.
    That's what we should do across California. There was no need to spend another $6 billion to lock up nonviolent, non-serious offenders.

Signal: Attorney General Bill Lockyer and law enforcement agencies up and down the state say the rate of violent crime has been dropping the last 10 years. If not three strikes, then to what do you attribute the decline?

Benson: I'm not saying it didn't have something to do with three strikes. I'm saying that the records show that where it was applied to violent, serious-only, and targeted in that fashion, that it worked better.

Ipsen: I think that three strikes is a huge part of (the decline). To think that locking up the additional 26,000 felons that these guys that want to release, that have a violent and serious history — including Kenneth Parnell, who for 50 years his has kidnapped and raped young boys, and Steven "Cutthroat" Matthews, who is in under three strikes, who committed robbery, kidnapping, murder, raped his own mother — both of these guys will get out if Proposition 66 passes, because guys like this (Benson) somehow want to redefine what serious and violent is.
    Let me tell you how they redefine it. Under Proposition 66, burglary of your home in most cases won't be considered serious by them. Most arsons they define as not serious. You could torch 20,000 acres in Santa Clarita, they consider it not serious. The biggest office building in downtown they say is not serious. They're changing the definition of what is serious and violent. In fact, you can commit child abuse. Not serious or violent. Most crimes where great bodily injury is induced, they're defining out of serious and violent. They're playing with definitions, and by this kind of gamesmanship, they're releasing criminals into the streets.

Signal: Would Proposition 66 really lead to the automatic release of 26,000 inmates?

Benson: The proposition calls for nobody to be released. It calls for them to go through a resentencing process, to go back before the judge, wave their right to double jeopardy. The district attorney at that time can come in and charge other charges surrounding the current event. I want to just touch on Parnell, for example. His current offense is trying to buy a child for $500. That, to me, is attempted kidnapping. He wasn't charged under that statue; he was charged under a 150-year-old statue pertaining to slavery. When he comes back for resentencing, he should be charged under attempted kidnapping and sent right back to jail.

Ipsen: This is the big lie of this group, and this is by a millionaire who is trying to get his son out, who is responsible for the death of two kids.
    Here's the trick that they want uniformed people to fall for. It comes in front of judge for resentencing. What Proposition 66 does is the equivalent of, if you say a murder charge, from now on you get one year in jail. And you try to pass that, they would be able to say, well, under our proposition, all these guys come back for resentencing in front of judge. That judge is going to be bound by the new law, which is one year for murder. That is what they're doing for Kenneth Parnell. The crime he was charged with, and the only crime, is attempting to buy a child on the Internet. (Benson is) not a lawyer, and it's dangerous for a non-lawyer to think he can tell a prosecutor how to charge someone with attempted kidnapping. It's not an attempt at kidnapping. Parnell has, for 50 years, been molesting and kidnapping kids. He's getting out. And even if it were attempted kidnapping, he would do maybe a year in prison, maybe a year and a half. OK? So we got him in for life. Kids won't be molested. Child molesters molest into their 70s and 80s. More kids will be molested if you (Benson) get your way, and it's going to be on your conscience. And it's going to be a lot of damage because of Proposition 66.

Signal: Under three strikes, a person with two or more previous serious or violent felony convictions is supposed to get 25 years to life for a new felony conviction, regardless of whether the new felony is serious or violent. Under Proposition 66, the new felony would have to be serious or violent for the 25-to-life sentence to apply. What's fair? Why should someone go to prison for life for stealing a slice of pizza, or for possessing a small amount of a controlled substance?

Ipsen: In most cases they shouldn't. And in most cases our prosecutors and our judges are using their discretion and saying no, it's not 25 to life; it'll be a doubled sentence at 80 percent. But there are cases with guys like Steven "Cutthroat" Matthews, who is an Aryan brotherhood member who was convicted of robbery, kidnapping, and most recently, raping his mother. And then we caught him with this, which is not legally a serious or violent felony — because it's not what a person thinks is serious — it's a list of crimes that they take six crimes out of. Recent crime — we caught him with, after raping his mother, after committing murder, everything else, was having a pick-ax that said, "The Fag Finder Reminder," and a machete. That is what we got him with. This guy is a hardened criminal. He has been in and out of the system, 25 to life. Under his (Benson's) law, he'll be released shortly after Proposition 66 is passed. There are some people — a child molester that repeat child-molests — no matter what felony you catch them with, a judge should have the discretion to protect society from these people, for the rest of their lives.

Benson: With some of the poster children the opposition is putting out there, the question that comes to my mind immediately is, who the heck let them out to begin with? But I want to talk about a serious crime that is on the list now, and I want to talk about the arson a little bit, and the burglary.
    One of the serious crimes is something that every one of us sitting here, and every one of us listening in the audience, has probably done at some point, and that is a criminal threat. What is a criminal threat? If you've known somebody over six months and you threaten to harm them or kill them, and they call the police and they haul you away, and you get convicted of that — that is a prior strike. Not just a felony. I agree it should be a felony, but it shouldn't be a prior strike.
    For arson, anything that is inhabited, that they set fire to, is a strike. And that includes offices, tunnels, bridges, tents. That is in the code. I have not seen a forest fire where somebody wasn't injured, or anything like that. There is only 27 people ever got a third strike for arson, because the arson penalties are strictly enforced — the other ones that are on the books. The only person that this would affect would be a mentally handicapped child who lit fire to ashtray.
    Burglary — there should be a (distinction) between if somebody's in danger and if somebody's not. If somebody's in the house, they're in danger. If they come home, they're in danger. If there's nobody's there, no human life is in danger. We need to have that differentiation to have a deterrent in that area.

Signal: Proposition 66 would reduce sentences from the current 85 percent of time served to 50 percent in certain categories of crimes. If somebody is sentenced in a court of law to 10 years, why should he get out in five? Shouldn't a sentence be a sentence?

Benson: Well, it actually, traditionally, never has been that way. And we tightened that up for violent and serious crimes with the three strikes law. And I think if somebody has a violent or serious offense it is proper, but with the other 50 percent it's what you call good-time credits. If the person stays out of trouble, then they're eligible for the 50-percent reduction. If they keep getting themselves in trouble inside, then they're not. It's an incentive for them to try and become a better citizen.

Signal: Does Proposition 66 improve things or weaken the system with respect to time served?

Ipsen: Well, it improves things if you're a rapist or a child molester that we've managed to lock up because you've committed a third felony, after a judge has reviewed it and said no, you're not one of the guys I'm going to strike a strike. Judges do that every day. They look at the entire record one-by-one, person by person, constitutional right by constitutional right, and if they say no, you're hardened, you're a child molester, and you're out there, you burglarized a home — this guy (Benson) thinks burglary is not serious, you can break (into) a person's home, you can break through with the intent of committing a felony. If no one's inside, he thinks it's not serious. Well, that means that Kenneth Parnell can break in your home, waiting for your children to come home, and since it's not occupied, he says it's not serious or violent.
    We want cases to be viewed individually by a judge before they're sent for 25 to life. It's right. It's what is fair. And the right way to do it is to review cases individually before releasing them. Don't release 65 percent of the people that have been locked up under third strikes over the last 10 years. Twenty-six thousand people will be released, and the proponents say it will save hundreds of millions of dollars. That's because 26,000 felons are no longer in prison. And if you want to save billions of dollars, these guys would say, let everyone out of prison; we're going to save a lot of money. But who's going to pay? It's the public that's going to pay when your kids are molested, when your wife is raped, and you are murdered. And that will happen. This is not an exaggeration. These are the worst of worst that we've locked up. Proposition 66 is a key out, because a millionaire, Jerry Keenan, bought these guys to get out there and pass a deceptive law.

Signal: We've all heard stories of unfair sentences, and whether they're too lenient or too harsh, judges are human beings. If Proposition 66 isn't the answer, what kind of judicial reform would you recommend?

Ipsen: Let me agree with you — you know judges aren't perfect, they're not always right and in fact in LA County, I'm not always on the side saying a judge is perfect. Two judges — Judge (Dan) Oki and Judge David Wesley refused to work late two Mays ago, released 75 people without arraigning them, and a young man was murdered as a result — Lawrence Middleton — because they didn't do their job. Mass release of 75 result in at least one death. My fear, my nightmare, is if these guys win. 26,000 people released. Crime will increase. With that said, our judiciary is incredibly. They're hard working. They care. They're looking at cases one by one to not release them. Now, to the extent that you have individual human beings doing a job, could we devise a different solution to the isolated case of a pizza guy who's in for life? And you should know, the pizza thief that we hear about on the news, he got six years. A judge reduced his sentence. He's not in for life. Judges do it everyday. But I say another solution, not Proposition 66. Let's have the governor set up a parole board that can review these cases. The governor can pardon cases, as we all know, if they think an injustice is done. Don't let them out en masse. Do it one at a time. Make sure justice is done to protect the community.

Signal: Jim, is part of the impetus for Proposition 66 to address bad judicial decisions?

Benson: Well let me go back to '94. When it got passed in '94, judges and district attorneys said that if this is what the people want — because a lot of district attorneys opposed it, because they thought it went too far. If this is what the people want, we're going to lock up every single person up that we can. And we did that until we've run out of room in the prisons. As of Sept. 8, 2004, we're at 201.5 percent. If we don't have a mechanism to deal with releasing some of the nonviolent, non-serious offenders that are in there, who are we going to release?

Signal: Do you believe there are some criminals that are just career criminals and no amount of reforming will do any good? Are there people who should be locked away for life?

Steve Ipsen, Jim Benson Benson: Yes. That's a real simple answer. Yes.

Signal: Steve, aren't there criminals who can be reformed? Is there not some other kind of more reasonable or equitable means of fighting recidivism?

Ipsen: I'll tell you, that's the ultimate philosophical question which could result in the belief that no one should ever be locked up, we can reform everyone, let's not put people in jail, there's another way. The problem with it is, while we're trying to reform guys like Kenneth Parnell who has molested for 50 years and tried to buy a guy on the Internet, society has failed to reform this guy, if it is possible. It's too big a risk to say let's let half of the people we've locked up under three strikes out and hope they don't molest kids again, hope they don't rape again. I say instead, let's trust our judges to make sure the people like the pizza thieves have their 25 to life reduced to six years and get parole. Work with them. Trust the judges that we hire, that we elect, to make the right decisions. Trust the prosecutors who've been to law school and aren't just out here talking about things they don't know about. Trust the people that we respect, and trust our governor that if there's an injustice — he's paroled already 45 murders because he feels they've been reformed. Gov. Schwarzenegger is against this. Republican. Another thing that may shock this man here, Jerry Brown, Democrat, former governor, he has opposed 66. The governor has opposed 66. You have both sides opposing, every elected D.A. opposing. This is a nightmare designed by a millionaire to get his son out.

Signal: The Yes on 66 people say their measure is way ahead in the polls, indicating a broad sentiment that something is wrong with three strikes. Is three strikes perfect, and if not, what kind of reform would you recommend?

Ipsen: There is that general sentiment that, I think, the media has created because in the early days you'd have the pizza thief who got the 25 to life sentence and then they don't cover the fact and tell you that a judge used his discretion to reduce it. And this age of sort of shock journalism at times, it's sexy to tell the story of a petty thief who got life without talking about the two kids that he molested, without talking about the murder he committed in the past. It's a good story to say this poor guy is away for life. But what has happened since three strikes to make it a good law is the use of judicial discretion and release. So nothing is perfect, but what certainly isn't perfect is saying let's release all the people we've locked up, or in this case 65 percent of the second strikers and start over. It's a good law. That's why every elected DA is behind it and we can modify it in a different way. This isn't the solution. Just because you say that there's a problem in society doesn't mean that the ballot measure is the solution. This is not the solution to the problem. This is an invitation to more crime. Crime rates will go up and people will pay because guys like this call themselves against serious or violent crime, but then they redefine serious or violent crime to let dangerous guys out.

Signal: Jim, does Proposition 66 solve all the problems with three strikes?

Benson: Well frankly, I think Proposition 66 does basically restore the originally intent of the voters with three strikes.

Signal: What was the voters' original intent?

Benson: Well my intent, when I voted for it, was to have a three strikes law for violent and serious offenders. In some cases we have a two-strike law. I ran into a guy that came up and said to me, "I'm lucky. I got acquitted for a drug charge. They wanted to give me 25 to life." I said, what was your prior? He said, "A burglary and an attempted burglary." I said, two separate occasions? He says, "No, it was the same time." So we're bringing it back in to what the people feel they voted for. As far as the public officials not supporting it, I wouldn't want to risk a Willy Horton or having one of these guys chasing me around later if I'm going to run for another office. If I was sitting where they were, I wouldn't want to support it either.

Signal: Does it matter that the signature gathering drive was financed by a man who merely wants to get his son out of prison? Do the benefits of Proposition 66 outweigh the personal motivations?

Benson: Well I hate to speak for somebody else, for one thing, but to me, at most — if it applies, and there's differing opinions as to whether he will go to 50 percent or stay at 80 percent, depending on which lawyers you talk to — so I don't know the bottom line. If that reduces his sentence by two years, $2 million or $2.2 million or $1.5 million, that's a lot of money for somebody to give just for that. He could put it in a trust account — the kid's coming home anyway; you just have to wait another year or two — he could put it in a trust account and set him up for life. There's got to be more to his motive than just helping his own son.

Signal: Thinking of Jerry Keenan's case, today under three strikes, if you get behind the wheel and you're drunk and you crash and three people die and it's tried and you're convicted of three counts of gross vehicular manslaughter, that's three strikes. Under Proposition 66, it would be one strike per conviction — in other words, you'd have three deaths but that would be one strike on your record unless they're tried in separate trials. Shouldn't each wrongful death be worth a strike?

Benson: It doesn't happen always. It happens selectively. Reviewing stuff from several places across the state, one person had a similar incident and they'll give them six months and driving school. The next person will do it, with a similar record, and they'll give them a strike and eight or 10 years or charge them with manslaughter or second-degree murder. So it's not consistent, No. 1. And No. 2, I don't think anyone got in that car — I don't think Richard Keenan got in that car with his friend, who was living with him, with any intention or expecting anything would happen. I'm sure that he's heartbroken. I'm sure that both families are heartbroken and my heart goes out to all of them. But to make that a strike for something that can enhance his sentence in the future is not proper. If he does a second drunk driving, that should be a higher charge than it is under the law. If we need to increase that specifically to drunk driving we should do that. But it shouldn't be under three strikes.

Signal: Steve, do you have a question for Jim?

Ipsen: If your concern really that you don't want the third strike to be a pizza theft or a petty theft of some sort, why have you do you give discounts to child molesters and rapists for multiple victims calling it one strike?

Benson: If somebody has committed three murderers, five rapes, seven robberies, each one of those can be charged and served consecutively. And they should be. The first time. Not the second time. We shouldn't be letting these people out to do two or three different things if they're doing violent or heinous things to begin with. That's the bottom line.

Signal: Jim, do you have a question for Steve?

Benson: If you were rewriting the law — obviously there's a huge sentiment out there for people who feel (there's something) wrong with (three strikes) — and the Legislature is not going to act; they've had 10 years — what is the solution to deal with the people who are sitting there (in prison) now that shouldn't be?

Ipsen: It sure isn't Proposition 66, and people better know what they are voting for before they do it. It sure isn't releasing 26,000 felons, over half the people locked up. What the solution is, to the degree there's a problem, is reform it so if the second strike is a drug offense or a petty theft, that if a judge thinks it has to be a life sentence, it's a simple life sentence and they can be paroled after seven years. Have a parole board review, individually, cases. Not a mass release into society. Individual review is what we need, not Proposition 66.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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