California Passes Three Strikes Reform

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Proposition 36, which limits California's "Three Strikes" law to people convicted of violent crimes, saving the cash-strapped state over $100 million per year by reducing the mounting cost of incarcerating aging nonviolent inmates, passed by more than a 20 percentage-point margin.

Under Prop 36, repeat offenders whose third strike crime is minor or nonviolent will be sentenced to double the ordinary term rather than life. Offenders whose second or third strike is a violent offense will still be sentenced to life.

The proposal was supported by a broad bipartisan group of law enforcement leaders, academics, taxpayer advocates, civil rights organizations, and retired judges and prosecutors, including District Attorneys from Los Angeles to San Francisco, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, and conservative tax reform advocate Grover Norquist.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said in support of Prop 36: "The state should not allow the misallocation of limited penal resources by having life prison sentences for those who do not pose a serious criminal threat to society. The punishment should fit the crime."

California's original "Three Strikes" law passed in 1994. It required that a person convicted of a felony who has two or more prior convictions for certain offenses must be sentenced to at least 25-years-to-life in state prison, even if the third offense is nonviolent. People have been sentenced to life in prison for shoplifting a pair of socks or stealing bread, according to the Committee for Three Strikes Reform.

The change in the law will allow an estimated 2800 people currently in prison to petition the courts for a reduced sentence, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, and prevent an untold number of people from being charged with a third strike in the future.

"Tonight's vote on Proposition 36 sends a powerful message to policymakers in California and across the country that taxpayers are ready for a new direction in criminal justice," Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center on the States' Public Safety Performance Project, told reporters. "States that have already made some changes to their sentencing laws may be inspired to take a second look, and states that haven't made significant changes yet may start."

Prop. 34, which would have abolished the death penalty in California, lost narrowly by less than six percentage points. The vote demonstrates the erosion of support for the death penalty: Californians adopted the current death penalty law in 1978 with more than 70% of the vote, but 47.1% of voters supported the repeal of a system that both current California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and former Chief Justice Ronald George have called "dysfunctional."