Californians to Decide Fate of Three-Strikes Law, Seldom-Used Death Penalty

Next week, Californians will have the opportunity to revisit two major criminal justice issues previously enacted by ballot initiative: the death penalty and the three-strikes sentencing law. 

Proposition 36 will provide residents with an opportunity to modify the state's 18-year-old "three-strikes" law, which allows judges to 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.  Under Prop. 36, the three-strikes law would be restricted to offenders whose third offense was serious or violent.  

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.  If the measure passes, these prisoners would be allowed 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.  

The law, one of the strictest in the country, was passed overwhelmingly by voters in 1994 following the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a repeat felon.  In 2004, voters narrowly defeated a measure that also would have required the third-strike offense to be serious or violent.  However, recent polls show significant public support for Proposition 36.

Proposition 34 would repeal the state's seldom-used death penalty, and replace the maximum sentence for murder with life in prison without the possibility of parole. The measure would apply retroactively to prisoners currently on death row in the state, commuting their sentences to life in prison.  California currently has more than 700 people on death row, the largest in the nation. 

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

Supporters of the measure cite 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 agree that the current system is not working, but argue that the appeals process should be streamlined so that more executions could be carried out.  In addition, opponents point 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.

Recent polls show the measure narrowly trailing.