There is a good possibility voters in California will get a chance to reform their 1994 “three strikes” law this November. Supporters of the ballot initiative to reform the law claim they turned in signatures well in excess of the 500,000 required by state law to qualify for the ballot. From Mercury News:
An initiative written by Stanford University professors to scale back California’s tough Three Strikes Law has garnered more than 830,000 signatures of support, virtually ensuring the measure will make the November ballot and triggering the state’s latest struggle over how harshly criminals should be treated.
California is the only one of the 26 states with three strikes laws to allow prosecutors to charge any felony as a third strike — and then to lock up the offenders for 25 years to life. The proposed initiative would reserve that penalty for the baddest of the bad, including murderers, rapists and child molesters.
The initiative is meant to be a small step towards dealing with prison overcrowding and the huge burden the prison population places on the state’s budget.
The war on drugs and the three strikes law have resulted in the prison population and costs skyrocketing in the state over the past several decades. According to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office it cost on average $47,000 a year to incarcerate one prisoner. With roughly 141,000 people in state prison as of February, this represents a huge expense for the state. Also, the prison population well exceeds the capacity of the state’s facilities which is why the Supreme Court ordered the state do reduce prison overcrowding in 2011.
Early polling indicates that if the initiative qualifies, it stands a decent chance of being approved by the voters. A Field poll taken last year directly after the Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison overcrowding found that 74% supported changing the three strikes law to give judges and juries more discretion in sentencing. Of course, opinions can change once campaigns start talking more about the specific details.
This would be the second ballot initiative related to prison expense and sentencing on the ballot in California this year. Earlier this week an initiative that would end the death penalty was certified to appear before the voters.