Yesterday Proposition 36, which reforms California's draconian "three strikes" law, won by a margin of more than 2 to 1: 69 percent for, 31 percent against. By contrast, a previous attempt at reform, Proposition 66, fell three points short of a majority in 2004. The huge turnaround seems to vindicate the strategy pursued by Proposition 36's backers, who narrowed the measure's focus, added safeguards aimed at reassuring wary voters, emphasized the taxpayer savings resulting from shorter sentences, and lined up endorsements from prominent law enforcement officials such as Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley. But the shift may reflect other factors as well, including California's fiscal crisis, a prison overcrowding problem so severe that the federal courts have deemed it a violation of the Eighth Amendment, and a growing realization, among conservatives as well as progressives and moderates, that the impulse to crack down ever harder on crime consumes scarce resources without improving public safety. That understanding has led to sentencing reform even in states, such as Texas and South Carolina, that are not known for coddling criminals.
About a third of the 9,000 or so prisoners serving life sentences under California's three-strikes statute will be eligible for resentencing thanks to Proposition 36, which requires that all three strikes, not just the first two, be "serious or violent" crimes. Until now the third strike could be any felony, including "wobbler" offenses that are often charged as misdemeanors. The upshot was that someone who had already served time for two different burglaries could go to prison for the rest of his life after being caught with stolen property or even a bag of marijuana. "There's a shocking number of people whose third strike is simple possession," says Stanford law professor Michael Romano, who co-authored the initiative.
Looking forward, there is a strong case for further reform, including reclassification of burglaries that do not involve a risk of violence, which probably stands a better chance of passing than it did eight years ago. Frugality may accomplish what compassion could not.
Reason TV on Proposition 36: