It all started with two murders. The tragic cases of Polly Klaas, the 12-year-old Petaluma girl who was kidnapped and murdered by parolee Richard Allen Davis on Oct. 1, 1993, and Kimber Reynolds, an 18-year-old from Fresno murdered in 1992 during a purse-snatching incident, galvanized the "tough on crime" agenda in California. In response, voters in 1994 approved Proposition 184, established to put violent career criminals behind bars for life.
But in the nearly 20 years since "three strikes" went into effect, many nonviolent offenders have been swept up in an overreaching, anti-crime net.
"We need prisons for people who prey upon society," says John Abrahams, a retired Sonoma County public defender who supports Proposition 36, a November ballot initiative that would reduce prison sentences served by qualified third-strikers whose current offense is a nonserious, nonviolent felony. "We don't need to lock up people for life who steal pizza or bicycles from garages, or drug offenders, things like that."
Drafted by lawyers at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Stanford Law School, the initiative is modeled after successful "three strikes" sentencing policy implemented in Los Angeles County by District Attorney Steve Cooley. The Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that Proposition 36 would save the state approximately $70 million a year in the beginning and $90 million yearly after that.
Currently, there are 140,000 inmates in state prisons; 33,000 of those are second-strikers and 9,000 are third-strikers. Under Proposition 36, 2,800 third-strikers would be eligible for re-sentencing, potentially reducing their prison sentences from life in prison. Excluded from the measure are those whose previous crimes involved sex offenses, drug trafficking, homicide, firearms or weapons of mass destruction.
Those fighting for "three strikes" reform say that an aging prison population is taxing the prison system, since prisoners over the age of 50 tend to have higher medical needs. The 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that crowded conditions in California prisons amount to "cruel and unusual punishment" has compounded the crisis.