California Votes to Keep Death Penalty, Ease Three-Strikes Law

California voters sent mixed messages on two ballot measures related to criminal justice, passing a measure that modifies the state's harsh three-strikes law, while rejecting a measure to eliminate the state's seldom-used death penalty.

Under the three-strikes law, judges may impose a sentence of 25-years-to-life for offenders who commit a third felony, no matter how minor, if they have two previous serious or violent criminal convictions. Almost 69% of voters voted to modify the law so that life sentences will be allowed to be imposed only when the third felony conviction is "serious or violent" or for a minor felony crime if the perpetrator is a rapist, child molester, or murderer. 

According to the Sacramento Bee, more than 8,800 prisoners are currently serving 25-to-life terms under the law.  Of these, more than 3,600 received life terms for third convictions of non-serious, non-violent crimes like petty theft and drug possession.  Passage of Proposition 36 allows these prisoners to apply for re-sentencing hearings, and potentially be released. 

According to the Legislative Analyst's Office, passage of the measure would save the state  $70-$90 million annually in reduced prison costs.  

By a margin of 53-47, voters rejected Proposition 34, which would have repealed the state's seldom-used death penalty, and replaced the maximum sentence for murder with life in prison without the possibility of parole. The measure would have applied retroactively to prisoners currently on death row in the state, commuting their sentences to life in prison.  California has more than 700 people on death row, the largest in the nation. 

Prop. 34 would also have required people convicted of murder to work while in prison, with their wages applied to victim restitution fines. It also would have created a $100 million fund for law enforcement investigations of homicide and rape. 

Supporters of the measure cited the significant cost - $4 billion - of maintaining a death penalty apparatus in a state that has executed just 13 inmates since capital punishment resumed in 1977.  A 2011 independent study found that the cost incurred by the death penalty in the state is $184 million more than what would be spent by imprisoning offenders without the possibility parole.  Among the largest costs for maintaining the death penalty were state-funded legal representation and increased security requirements for death row inmates.

Opponents agreed that the current system is not working, but argued that the appeals process should be streamlined so that more executions could be carried out.  In addition, opponents pointed out that repeal could lead to higher court costs because prosecutors often use the possibility of a death sentence to get defendants to plead guilty to a lesser sentence.