Politics & Government

Ballot push targets gangs

SACRAMENTO -- Law enforcement groups and Republican lawmakers announced Monday an anti-gang ballot initiative that would lead to the biggest sentencing changes since the controversial "Three Strikes" law was enacted more than a decade ago.

The initiative -- targeted for the November 2008 ballot -- would increase prison terms for some gang-related crimes, forbid bail to undocumented immigrants, require convicted gang members to register with local authorities, and pump about $340 million a year into various anti-crime programs.

"It's time to send a message to gang members and street thugs that Californians have had it, and their violent crimes and lawless ways must end," said state Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster.

Runner wrote the measure with his wife, Assembly Member Sharon Runner, and Mike Reynolds, a Fresno native and leading advocate for 1994's Three Strikes law, which enacted tougher penalties for repeat offenders. The Runners sponsored Jessica's Law, last year's voter-approved initiative that places new restrictions on sex offenders.

Supporters must collect 433,971 valid signatures to qualify the anti-gang initiative for the ballot, a task expected to cost $1.5 million. Runner said about one-third of the money has been pledged, though he declined to name the major donors.

One provision in the initiative would allow county sheriffs to open emergency jails to relieve crowded jails. Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims had been seeking the same authority through a separate ballot initiative. Mims said she will now drop that effort and campaign for the Runner initiative.

She was one of many law enforcement officials speaking in favor of the initiative at a news conference in Sacramento. The proposal, she said, would provide needed new money to local agencies.

"We have to decide every single day where our funding is going to be focused," she said. "This initiative stabilizes that funding so we don't have to make those hard choices."

But opponents said the initiative ignores social programs aimed at keeping children from joining gangs.

"After 40 years of tough-on-crime politics all we have to show for it is a bloated prison system and underfunded public school system," said Matt Gray, of Taxpayers for Improving Public Safety, an activist group that has opposed new prison construction. "They should be going after keeping kids out of harm's way by investing in their development."

There also are questions about how the state would pay for the $340 million annual cost of the new programs. The state is expected to face a significant general fund shortfall next year.

George Runner did not identify what programs he would prefer to cut to fund the gang initiative, but he said public safety programs should be the state's first priority.

Gangs have long been a problem in Fresno County. In 2005, 25% of all homicides in the county were gang-related, according to recent statistics put out by Gov. Schwarzenegger's office.

Reynolds said tougher laws are needed because "overcrowded jails with wrist-slapping sentencing are turning [gang members] back as fast as they are going in."

He has been campaigning for tougher sentencing laws ever since his daughter was murdered in Fresno in 1992.

The initiative would enact stiffer penalties for a variety of offenses. For example, accomplices to gun-related felony crimes would face years-long prison terms. Also, penalties for methamphetamine crimes would be increased to the same level as cocaine offenses.

Another provision would allow prosecutors to use sworn statements from gang crime witnesses who later died or are afraid to testify in court.

Gray assailed the provision as "undermin[ing] the very cornerstone of our democratic society," by not allowing the witness to be cross-examined by defendants.

The initiative also would prohibit bail for undocumented immigrants charged with violent or gang-related crimes.

"We don't want them to be back out on the streets," Reynolds said. "We want to turn them over to immigration [officials]."

Jessica Smith-Bobadilla, a Fresno-based immigration lawyer, said the proposal was unfair.

"It infringes on their right to be treated like other people who have not yet been convicted of a crime," she said. "Even noncitizens deserve due process."