The Man Who Pitched Three Strikes

Republican activist Michael Reynolds was moved to political action after the murder of his sister

Published in 2004 Southern California Rising Stars — September 2004

Michael Reynolds, a partner with Snell & Wilmer in Irvine specializing in bankruptcies and business reorganizations, carries a photograph in his wallet that is the most important influence on how he spends much of his time when he isn’t practicing law. It is a photograph of his sister Kimber at age 18, shortly before she was shot to death in a robbery committed by two parolees with long criminal records in Fresno on June 29, 1992.

Reynolds, who was a first-year law student at UCLA at the time, calls his sister’s murder his “introduction to politics.” He has remained heavily involved ever since as a Republican Party activist and promoter of tough laws on crime.

“During the summer after Kimber’s death, particularly after we learned who killed her and the length of their rap sheets, we asked ourselves, ‘What can we do to keep this from happening again?’” Reynolds recalls. The immediate answer was to launch the campaign — in which he and his father, also named Mike, were leading spokesmen — that led less than two years later to California’s three-strikes sentencing law.

In the years since it took effect, the law, prescribing 25-years-tolife in prison for anyone with two prior serious felonies who is convicted of any third felony offense, has often been criticized as inflexibly draconian in particular cases involving relatively low-level felons. This year, it is facing its first full-frontal attack. An initiative, tentatively titled “The Three Strikes and Child Protection Act of 2004,” has qualified for the November ballot. The initiative would modify the law in several key respects. Most notably, the third strike would have to be a serious or violent felony. And since it would apply retroactively, thousands of prisoners could become eligible for resentencing or release.

That initiative would “gut” three strikes, says Reynolds, which is why he expects to be in “campaign war mode” until election day. He plans to hit the campaign trail, doing radio and TV shows, speaking and debating in defense of the law he helped enact. He is also taking an active role in the campaign of Bill Jones, the Republican and former California secretary of state seeking to oust Barbara Boxer from her U.S. Senate seat. Jones was the state assemblyman from Fresno, the Reynolds’ hometown, when Kimber was killed, and he was instrumental in getting the three-strikes measure enacted. “I’ve been loyal to Bill Jones ever since,” Reynolds says.

The case against three strikes has been fleshed out in a new book, Cruel Justice: Three Strikes and the Politics of Crime in America’s Golden State. Author Joe Domanick asserts that “a broadening consensus,” including prominent law enforcement officials, has come to realize that the law “desperately needs to be fixed.” More than 1,000 men and women have been sent to prison for 25 years to life for such crimes as shoplifting a pair of sneakers, and about 7,000 prisoners have been put away on a nonviolent third strike.

Reynolds is unmoved. The third strike doesn’t have to be a violent crime for a good reason, he asserts. “We’re not waiting for another blood-soaked victim,” he explains. As for all those cases inwhich a supposedly trivial crime counted as a third strike, Reynolds points out that the sentencing judge has access to the offender’s entire criminal record and if it is truly innocuous, the judge has discretion to downgrade the pending offense, letting the defendant off the three-strikes hook. “There may be an occasional case” of a chronic ne’er-do-well getting a 25-years-to-life term who arguably doesn’t need to be in prison for quite that long, Reynolds concedes. “But they have been few and far between,” he insists. In the meantime, the law has taken more than 7,000 repeat felons off the streets for the next couple of decades and that, Reynolds believes, is a major reason why the crime rate has fallen steadily to its lowest level in decades.

While fighting against any rollback in the three-strikes law is an intensely personal calling for Reynolds, he says helping companies step back from the brink of bankruptcy is downright “fun.” He says, “You can really get in there and help keep businesses from shutting their doors.”

Reynolds’ political activism intersects with his bankruptcy law practice in at least one respect. Some of the beleaguered businesses that he represents have been put in a hole at least in part because of what he views as the state’s unfavorable business climate. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose election he supported, is “just what the doctor ordered” to fix that, he says.

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