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California Voters' Guide 2012: Proposition 36

Among a daunting package of ballot questions, here is the free minds and free markets perspective on proposition 30.

Adrian Moore
October 16, 2012

Proposition 36: Reform of Three Strikes Law

Proposition 36 will change the three strikes law to impose life sentences only when the third strike is "serious or violent" or in the case of certain sex, drug or firearm offenses. It would allow resentencing of people serving life under the three strikes law if their third strike was not serious or violent, unless any one of their strikes was for rape, murder or child molestation.

Fiscal Impact

The Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that Prop. 36 would save money on prison and parole operations of $70 million annually on an ongoing basis, with even higher savings—up to $90 million annually—over the next couple of decades. But the savings could vary substantially depending on how the law is implemented. These estimates could be higher or lower by tens of millions of dollars depending on future state actions. There would also be one-time state and county costs of a few million dollars over the next couple of years for court activities related to the resentencing of certain offenders.

Arguments for Proposition 36

Supporters of Prop. 36 argue that it would restore the original intent of the Three Strikes law by requiring that life sentences be imposed for serious or violent crimes, but that repeat offenders who commit minor, non-violent crimes will receive double the ordinary sentence instead of life.  They say that inmates currently serving life sentences for non-serious, non-violent crimes can apply for a new sentence, but the sentence can only be reduced if a judge determines that they are no longer an unreasonable threat to public safety, and that no rapists, murders, or child molesters are eligible for reduced sentences under Prop. 36 no matter how minor the defendant’s third strike offense.

They say that the Los Angeles' District Attorney has de facto implemented this reform for a decade and that crime rates in Los Angeles have dropped to historic lows.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered California's overflowing prisons to release tens of thousands of inmates, so supporters say Prop. 36 will help ensure that there is room in our prisons for truly dangerous criminals and that the punishment fits the crime for non-violent offenses.  They point out that Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform, says "Prop. 36 could save $100 million every year… The Three Strikes Reform Act is tough on crime without being tough on taxpayers. It will put a stop to needlessly wasting hundreds of millions in taxpayers’ hard-earned money, while protecting people from violent crime."  And they say that the California State Auditor projects that taxpayers will pay millions to house and pay health care costs for non-violent Three Strikes inmates if the law is not changed.

Supporters of Proposition 36

Website: http://www.yeson36.org/

Largest Donors to Yes Campaign as of October 1, 2012

Arguments Against Proposition 36

Opponents argue that Prop. 36 is dangerous and would allow almost one-half of California’s Three Strike prison inmates to be re-sentenced and released, 100 percent of whom have two or more serious or violent prior felonies. They say that changing the third strike requirement to also be serious or violent provides the opportunity for a repeat offender to impact yet more victims, while also stopping far fewer serious and violent criminals far later in their career.

They argue that when Three Strikes passed in 1994, California crime dropped in half, meaning half as many victims and half as many criminals, which also meant the state has not needed to build more prisons.  In contrast, they say, Prop. 36 would take criminals so dangerous that a District Attorney chose to charge them with a Three Strike offense, that a Judge agreed with DA’s decision to charge, that a jury convicted them of that offense, and that a Judge imposed a 25-to-life prison sentence, and whose legal appeals were denied, and let those same criminals ask a different Judge to set them free.

Finally, opponents say that the projected savings of not locking up twice convicted serious and violent criminals forgets to take into account the cost of crime these repeat offenders represent during the short amount of time they are on the streets between arrest and convictions.

Opponents of Proposition 36

Website:   http://www.savethreestrikes.com/

Largest Donors to No Campaign as of October 1, 2012

Discussion of Proposition 36

The crux of Prop. 36 is whether repeat offenders who are not murders, rapists, or child molesters and who commit a non-violent third strike should be punished by serving a life sentence or instead by serving double the usual sentence for their third strike crime.  

Both punish repeat offenders more than first time offenders.  It comes down to whether you think life in prison is the only way to prevent yet more crimes by these "career criminals."

It is too bad the discussion isn't more focused on why so many prisoners in California are in for victimless crimes, and why so many California criminals are repeat offenders. California locks up thousands of people each year for minor drug offenses.  Alternative punishments and the decriminalization of minor drug possession would do more to reduce strain on the prison system than three strikes reform.  Moreover, about 75 percent of people who go to prison in California commit crimes again once they are released.  That is one of the highest recidivism rates in the nation.  Rather than the very expensive option of locking repeat offenders up for life, California should invest in efforts to effectively reduce recidivism.


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Adrian Moore is Vice President, Policy


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