SACRAMENTO -- International financier George Soros and two other wealthy donors have contributed a total of $450,000 for a November ballot measure that would alter California's tough three strikes sentencing law.
Backers of the measure believe the donation will help them compete in a currency critical for ballot-measure campaigns: television advertisements.
"In short, we will not be overrun by the prison guards. This campaign will be a fair fight," said Joe Klaas, spokesman for Proposition 66 and the grandfather of murder victim Polly Klaas, whose killing fueled the three strikes law in 1994.
Opponents say the contribution will actually help their cause by making it clear that wealthy out-of-state donors are trying to dismantle California's criminal justice laws.
Soros, John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix, and Peter Lewis, founder of Progressive Insurance, each contributed $150,000 to the ballot measure. A spokesman said the trio may donate more as the campaign rolls on.
"They've launched an assault on our crime laws," said Steve Rice, spokesman for the campaign against Proposition 66.
The proposition, which enjoys strong support in early polls, would require a third strike that triggers a 25-years-to-life sentence to be a violent or serious crime.
Currently, that third offense can be a nonviolent felony, including forgery or petty theft.
The initiative also reduces the number of crimes that count as strikes, increases penalties for child molesters and could save the state millions of dollars in prison costs, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst.
The contributions likely won't be the last, according to the Drug Policy Alliance Network, an organization financed in part by Soros, Lewis and Sperling.
"We're prepared to do whatever it takes to win this campaign," said Glenn Backes, director of the network's California office.
The donation marks the third time that this trio has backed criminal justice measures in California.
In 1996, the three gave money to pass Proposition 215, which sought to legalize marijuana for medical uses. In 2000, they supported the successful Proposition 36, which diverts drug offenders from prison to treatment.
Rice said these wealthy donors are trying to take apart the state's criminal justice system one step at a time.
But their involvement should serve as a warning to voters because he said their past ballot measures haven't worked.
"The causes they become associated with don't do what they say they are going to do," Rice said.
So far, the prison guards union, a major backer of the original three strikes law, has contributed only about $49,000 to the effort to defeat this reform proposal. Calls to union officials weren't returned yesterday.
Besides the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, opponents of Proposition 66 include prosecutors, law enforcement officials, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic Attorney General Bill Lockyer.
Soros, a billionaire, has contributed tens of millions of dollars to promote justice in former Soviet bloc countries.
He has also sparked controversy by giving millions of dollars to groups trying to defeat President Bush in the November election.
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