Three Strikes, Out?

Sea change in California


Since 1994 California's "three strikes" law has mandated that criminals convicted of a third felony must be sentenced to at least 25 years in prison, regardless of the third crime's severity, if one of the three offenses was "serious or violent." On November 2, by a vote of 53 percent to 47 percent, Golden State voters failed to pass Proposition 66, which would have required that the third offense be "serious or violent." Polls showed the initiative attracting 62 percent support just two weeks before Election Day; it took every living current and former California governor and millions of dollars' worth of last-ditch TV ads to derail it.

Despite the defeat, evidence is mounting that California's tough-on-crime wave has reached its crest. "There's some real reason to be optimistic about the situation," says Lenor Nunez, deputy campaign manager of the Yes on 66 Coalition. "Now that the governor saw that 4.5 million people voted for some sort of reform, he knows the people of California are tired of the three-strikes law, and he has already said he's now willing to negotiate." Indeed, while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opposed Proposition 66–it would have required rehearings and possible releases for up to 26,000 third-strike prisoners, many of whom he presumed to be violent–he says he's willing to look at ways to reform the law.

Since felonies in California include shoplifting and minor drug possession, cases of disproportionate punishment have become commonplace since the three-strikes law was passed. Pam Martinez, one of the leading advocates for Proposition 66, was only recently given clemency from a 25-year sentence for stealing a $30 toolbox. About 4,300 of the 7,000 third-strikers in state prisons were sent there for nonviolent felonies. Of those, The Orange County Register reports, there are "357 people convicted of petty theft, 235 of vehicle theft, 69 of forgery and 678 of drug possession."

Four important developments have changed the sentencing climate in California: The prisons have become untenably overcrowded; the budget has exploded; the most tough-on-crime governor in state history, Gray Davis, was recalled; and Schwarzenegger was elected to replace him. The new governor has convened a blue-ribbon panel to investigate prison abuse and has released more convicted murderers in his first five months than Davis did in his entire five years.?