Among several notable propositions appearing on the the November 2004 California ballot is Proposition 66, which would limit California's "Three-Strikes" law dealing with sentencing for felony crimes. Proposition 66 would require that a felony triggering the second and third "strike" be a violent or serious crime instead of any felony, as the current "Three-Strikes" law provides. The "Three-Strikes" law, itself an initiative measure, appeared on the November 1994 ballot as Proposition 184* and was approved with 72 percent of the vote.
Whether there is a relationship between the "Three-Strikes" law and California's ballooning prison costs and inmate population is a hotly contested issue. The California prison system is the biggest in the U.S., with a budget of over $5.3 billion dollars a year (see California Enacted Budget) and housing over 161,000 inmates. Proponents of Proposition 66 claim that more than half of the people punished under the "Three-Strikes" law are convicted of non-violent offenses, clogging the prisons and costing millions of dollars annually. Opponents of the law cite lowered crime rates and concomitant savings in police and trial court costs.
*Ballot arguments and the Attorney General's official title and summary can be found in the California Ballot Propositions Database.
"Three Strikes" - Background
In 1994, the atmosphere in California was politically charged on the issue of violent crime, with the public outraged over several highly publicized murders. In June 1992, 18 year old Kimberly Reynolds was shot and killed by two repeat felons with long arrest records. Kimberly's father, Mike Reynolds, started a ballot initiative called "Three-Strikes and You're Out," to subject repeat felons to long mandatory sentences. Then, in October 1993, 12 year old Polly Klaas was kidnapped at her Petaluma home, and found murdered months later. Eventually, Richard Allen Davis, a repeat violent offender, was convicted for her murder. Polly's father, Marc Klaas, and the powerful California Prison Guards Union added their considerable support to the "Three-Strikes" initiative, and propelled the measure to victory on the November 1994 ballot as Proposition 184.
Proposition 184 substantially lengthened prison sentences for persons who had previously been convicted of a violent or serious crime. Specifically, a person who committed one prior violent or serious offense and who committed any new felony could receive twice the normal prison sentence for the new felony (the "second strike"). A person who committed two or more prior violent or serious offences and then committed any new felony would automatically receive 25 years to life in prison (the "third strike").
An identical legislative version of the Proposition 184, AB 971, was introduced in the Assembly in March 1994 by Assembly member Bill Jones. The law quickly passed the legislature, and Governor Pete Wilson signed it into law on March 8, 1994. When Proposition 184 passed in November 1994, its status as a voter approved measure gave it special protection from legislative revision. Although challenged in the courts, Proposition 184's constitutionality was affirmed in two March 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Lockyer v. Andrade and Ewing v. California. The two cases involved repeat offenders who were sentenced to prison terms of 25 years and longer after stealing golf clubs and videotapes.
Criticism of Proposition 184 has centered on its cost. Large increases in the prison population and prison expenditures followed the law's implementation. By September 1999 almost 50,000 inmates were imprisoned as second and third strikers, according to a report from the Legislative Analyst. From 1983 to 2004 the prison system budget increased from $1 billion to nearly $6 billion, a fact that many consider at least partially attributable to Proposition 184. Critics of the law also note that the majority of persons imprisoned under the law are second strikers who have committed non-violent felonies such as property crime and drug offences, and that the system has led to excessive incarceration rates. Some claim that the law was written to give the impression that its focus was violent offenders and didn't fairly convey its impact on all felons.
Assessments of Proposition 184's impact on the crime rate vary. Some conclude that major crime in California has decreased by 50% or more since the law's implementation, making it an obvious success. They say the law is effective against repeat criminal activity because it keeps dangerous habitual criminals behind bars. They say further that by reducing repeat criminal activity, the law reduces public expenditures on law enforcement and criminal justice. Opponents claim that crime rates decreased nationally for reasons other than the "Three-Strikes" law, such as a stronger economy in the 1990s and increased incarceration under other laws. They also say that the law unfairly sentences minor felons and costs California billions of dollars every year that could be better spent in other areas.
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Jones, Bill. Crime is down 38% after five years of Three-Strikes. Sacramento, CA : California Secretary of State, 1999.
Zimring, Franklin E. Crime and punishment in California : the impact of Three-Strikes and You're Out. Berkeley : Institute of Government Studies Press, University of California, 1999.
Males, Mike A Striking Out : the failure of California's "Three-Strikes and You're Out" Law. San Francisco, CA : Justice Policy Institute, [1999 or 2000].
"Three-Strikes and You're Out" law's impact on state prisons : an update. Sacramento, CA : Legislative Analyst's Office, 1999.
DiCamillo, Mark. Overwhelming support for "Three-Strikes and You're Out" initiative / by Mark DiCamillo and Mervin Field. San Francisco : Field Institute, 1994.
Proposition 66, an initiative statute, made it to the ballot in a climate of concern over problems inside the California prison system and alarm over record state budget deficits. It was spearheaded by Citizens Against Violent Crime, a California political action committee whose chairman, Joe Klaas is the grandfather of Polly Klass, whose murder helped ignite the support for Proposition 184 in 1994. Proposition 66 is also backed by Sacramento businessman Jerry Keenan whose son Richard is serving time for manslaughter after crashing his car while driving drunk and killing two passengers.
Proposition 66 would limit felonies that trigger the second and third strike to violent or serious crimes. It would eliminate residential burglary from the list of serious felonies that qualify as strikes, except when prosecutors prove someone was in the home at the time of the burglary. It would also allow prosecutors to count only one strike per prosecution instead of one strike per conviction, as current law requires, and it would increase penalties for child molesters. Proponents contend that Proposition 66 restores the "Three-Strikes" law's original intent to keep serious and violent criminals in prison.
Opponents of Proposition 66 include Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Attorney General Bill Lockyer and several crime victims advocates groups. They contend that Proposition 66 could allow as many as 26,000 inmates back on the streets. They also accuse the main financial backer of Proposition 66, Jerry Keenan, of trying to change the law to get his son out of prison early.
Public opinion on "Three-Strikes" legislation may be undergoing a significant shift. Proposition 184 passed with over 70 percent of the vote. A July 1996 Los Angeles Times poll found that 75 percent of the respondents viewed the "Three-Strikes" law as a "good thing." However, a June 2004 Field Poll found 76 percent of the respondents in support of Proposition 66. An Los Angeles Times poll on Oct. 19 found 62% of the respondents in support of Prop. 66.
In July, opponents of Prop. 66 filed suit against the sponsors of the initiative, over language which claims that Prop. 66 would "restore the original intent" of the Three-Strikes law passed in 1994. Proponents announced that they would counter-sue over the language in their opponents arguments. On August 10, a Sacramento Superior Court Judge ordered both sides in the Prop. 66 debate to make changes in the language they use in their arguments. Judge Raymond Cadei required opponents to cite a different illustration of a criminal whose sentence might be shorter if the initiative passes, targeting the use of violent offenders as examples. However, he did allow opponents to quote from a California District Attorney's estimate that as many as 26,000 felons could be released from prison if the law is enacted. He also required proponents to clarify that approving the changes would not release criminals currently serving sentences for violent offenses though they could have been previously convicted of those crimes.
Official Voter Information
League of Women Voters
Three Strikes Anniversary: 10 Years Later
A "three strikes" timeline that looks at the history of the law in California and other states with "three strikes" provisions. -->
"Late-breaking surge of No votes on Prop. 66 (three strikes limits) puts outcome in doubt. Declining support for Prop. 62 (open primary). Heavy No vote on two Indian gambling measures.," Field Poll, Oct. 30, 2004. (Release #2146).
"Large majority continues to favor Prop 66, to limit "Three Strikes" law; Plurality intends to vote no on Prop. 64, tort reform, although many remain undecided," Field Poll, Oct. 13, 2004. (Release #2141).
"Propositions 66 and 64: Voters appear disposed to put limits on state's "three strikes" law. Tort reform proposal trailing," Field Poll, Release #2129, August 14, 2004.