Could Three Strikes case help Governor Make up ground with Latinos?

Could the Governor’s loose lips spring a man from prison?

The National Latino Congreso held in Los Angeles last week may have laid out a blueprint for how Arnold Schwarzenegger could recoup some of his lost ground with Latino voters. The day before the Los Angeles Times reported on racially questionable comments made by the Governor, Congreso participants unanimously approved a resolution calling on Schwarzenegger to free a Latino prisoner imprisoned under California’s three-strikes law for cheating on a Department of Motor Vehicles exam.

The city of Richmond and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors have also passed resolutions calling on Schwarzenegger to free Santos Reyes, who has spent the last six years in Folsom prison. As governor, Schwarzenegger has the authority to commute sentences and issue pardons.

On Wednesday, Reyes’ supporters will rally outside of the U.S. District Court house in Los Angeles. The court is reviewing Reyes’ case upon orders from the Ninth District Court of Appeals, which last year that the sentence may have violated Reyes’ Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment.

Reyes’ supporters are hoping these resolutions and rallies may convince the governor that freeing Reyes would be a good public relations move. A Field Poll release on July 25 found Latinos favor Schwarzenegger’s Democratic opponent, Phil Angelides, by a 58 percent to 22 percent. Schwarzenegger received 31 percent of the Latino vote in the 2003 recall.

Schwarzenegger’s troubles began on Friday when the Los Angeles Times published taped comments he had made earlier this year in private meeting that included chief of staff Susan Kennedy and head speechwriter Gary Delsohn. On the tape, Schwarzenegger and Kennedy are heard making unflattering comments about two members of the Republican legislative leadership.

But the focus of the criticism against the governor stems from comments made about Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia, R-Cathedral City. Schwarzenegger speculates about the ethnicity of the New York Puerto Rican Garcia, then refers to her as a “hot-blooded Latina.” In a pair of press conferences later on Friday, Garcia said that she was not offended by the comments.

The movement to free Reyes has become a focus of two other hot-blooded–or at least highly outspoken–Latinos, Green Party politicians Matt Gonzalez and Peter Camejo. Gonzalez, who lost a closely fought San Francisco mayor’s race against Gavin Newsom in 2003, is legal counsel to the Free Santos Reyes organization.

Camejo, who is making his third run as the Green Party candidate for governor, is serving as a spokesman for the organization. He said the Reyes case represents a key opportunity for Schwarzenegger because the injustice of his sentence is closely tied to Reyes’ ethnicity and legal status. For instance, Camejo said that Reyes had been living and working productively in the U.S. for two decades, but could not get a driver’s license. He had a roofing business with a cousin who had could not read English. The pair decided to have Reyes take the written exam so the cousin could drive the truck they used.

“Like millions of undocumented, he had to have a driver’s license because if he gets stopped, he loses the car,” Camejo said.

The Reyes’ case has drawn the attention of anti-three strikes activists because his supporters say it is a prime example of the law being used to give long sentences to offenders who pose no public threat.

Donna Warren, Green Party candidate for Lt. Governor and a board member of Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes (FACTS), said that when three strikes opponents were looking for a case to use to illustrate problems with the law, Reyes’ quickly filtered to the top. For starters, she said, then-LA District Attorney Gil Garcetti chose to take what would have normally been a misdemeanor with a six-month maximum sentence and instead pursued a felony perjury charge in order to get a third strike on Reyes. Garcetti, Warren charges, was prosecuting “every black and brown person they could get their hands on” under three strikes.

Reyes first strike consisted of stealing a boombox out of a house in 1981 when he was 17. His second strike came five years later when he was convicted of robbery. Prosecutors said Reyes threatened someone with a roofing knife during that crime, something Reyes has denied. He then had no offenses for the next 11 years, a period in which he worked steadily, got married and fathered two children. At no time, his supporters note, did he ever actually attack anyone.

Numerous polls have shown the California’s three strikes law has lower support among Latinos than whites or Asians, though African-Americans have consistently been the least supportive of the law. The most outspoken three strikes reformer in the California Legislature has been a Latina, Sen. Gloria Romero. In late July, Romero said that she and Los Angeles DA Steve Cooley would likely push try to qualify a three strikes reform initiative in 2008.

How supportive Schwarzenegger will be–or can afford to be–remains to be seen. In 2004, he came out against a three strikes reform, Proposition 66. This initiative was widely criticized as being badly written; Cooley and several other noted three strikes reformers also opposed it. However, Warren said that Schwarzenegger cited what she claims is a bogus statistic created by the District Attorney’s Association: that Prop. 66 would free 26,000 violent criminals. The DA’s Association has been one of the major opponents of three strikes reform.

But Camejo believes this may be a case where a Republican could have more leeway than a Democrat.

“Republicans don’t have to worry about seeming soft on crime,” Camejo said.

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