Throughout the 1990s, tough-on-crime laws were extremely popular in California. Numerous pieces of legislation lengthened prison terms for many crimes, and the War on Drugs locked up an unprecedented number of small-time criminals. However, it was California's Three Strikes law — approved by an overwhelming majority of voters in 1994 — that exemplified the tough-on-crime mindset of the decade.
The statute was one of the first of its kind, and while 24 other states have enacted similar laws, California continues to have arguably the harshest three-strikes policy. What sets California apart is that it allows offenders to be sentenced to life in prison even if their third offense, or strike, is not violent. This aspect of the law has resulted in some 4,000 low-level offenders and drug users being locked up for life. In addition, about 1,300 convicts with no history of violence against people are also serving life terms. Housing these prisoners will end up costing the state billions of dollars in the coming decades.
If approved, Proposition 36 would place California's three-strikes policy more closely in line with that of other states. It would mandate that life sentences only be imposed when the third offense is violent or serious, unless the defendant had previously been convicted of an extremely violent crime, such as murder or rape. Minor repeat offenders would receive double the normal sentence for their third conviction rather than life behind bars. In addition, the thousands of non-violent third-strike offenders currently serving life terms could petition for resentencing.
These changes could save the state $100 million a year, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office. "We're in the midst of a dual crisis: We have overflowing prisons and an underfunded state," said Dan Newman, a strategist for the Yes on 36 Campaign. "Prop 36 would address both of these problems through a commonsense, modest reform."
Prop 36 isn't the first attempt to change three strikes in California. Since it was enacted in 1994, twelve separate bills in the legislature have attempted to reform the law, yet all failed to gather the necessary support. The biggest opposition to change has come from law-enforcement agencies, which have historically united against any proposed reform to three strikes. But with Prop 36, the law-enforcement community is somewhat divided.
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