With votes on two propositions on the Nov. 6 ballot, California voters will have the chance to fundamentally alter how the state deals with its most dangerous criminals.
Proposition 34 would repeal the death penalty and make life imprisonment without the possibility of parole the harshest sentence officials could seek. Proposition 36 would change California's Three Strikes Law so perpetrators wouldn't receive life sentences if their third "strike" is a nonviolent or less serious crime.
Supporters say the measures would save the state more than $100 million each, while opponents say they would make the state less safe by removing a major deterrent and shortening prison sentences for repeat-offenders of serious crimes.
Proposition 34 would repeal death penalty
Proposition 34 would eliminate the death penalty, a program supporters of the ballot measure say is slow, inefficient and expensive.
"Currently we have a death penalty system that costs us a ton of money and simply doesn’t work," said Steve Smith, a General Consultant for the Yes on Prop 34 campaign. "It's just another broken government program."
Smith said death penalty cases are more complicated and therefore more expensive, and California's 726 death row inmates receive special, expensive treatment once they're behind bars: Condemned inmates don't have cellmates, have constant access to the prison law library and receive lawyers for their lengthy appeal process. California has executed 13 death row inmates since resuming the punishment in 1978.
If Proposition 34 passes, some of the money saved by the state would go to a fund officials could dole out to local law enforcement agencies to help solve cold cases.
Smith said despite the costs and moral objections some have to capital punishment, there's another reason people support Proposition 34.
"I think the most commonly held view is the risk of executing an innocent person," he said. "As long as we have the death penalty there is a risk of executing an innocent person."
Peter DeMarco, a spokesman for the No on Prop 34 campaign, countered that proponents of the ballot measure are making "misleading and inaccurate" claims.
He contested whether the proposition would actually save the state money, and said there would be no way to ensure the unsolved cases fund would be distributed fairly.
The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office says Proposition 34 would save the state money, but estimates of $130 million in annual savings "could be higher or lower by tens of millions of dollars."
DeMarco said the state should reform its capital punishment process instead, still allowing the condemned to appeal their cases but not sit on death row for decades.
"To suggest that it costs too much, so we should just abandon it, is, quite frankly, gutless," he said.
He added that the proposition would remove the highest-level deterrent available against violent crime, and pointed out law enforcement organizations—the California Coalition of Law Enforcement Agencies, the California Police Chiefs Association and others—that oppose the ballot measure.
"Those groups all represent thousands of rank and file law enforcement officers who are on the streets every day," DeMarco said. "They will tell you that the difference of having the death penalty be applicable in first degree murder cases does make a difference in whether a crime is committed."
Proposition 36 would narrow third strike definition
Supporters of Proposition 36 say it would make California's Three Strikes Law match the original intent of the voters who enacted it in 1994—those who have two "strikes" against them but commit a nonserious or nonviolent crime won't receive a third.
In 1995, Jerry Dewayne Williams received a sentence of 25 years to life for his third strike—stealing a slice of pizza from kids in Redondo Beach. Although Williams' sentence was later reduced, it's the kind of case Dan Newman, a strategist for the Yes on Prop 36 campaign, likes to reference.
"We’ve gotta make smart decisions about using our law enforcement resources," Newman said. "Rapists and murderers get less prison time than nonviolent, three-strike offenders."
Instead of a 25-years-to-life sentence, Proposition 36 would mandate a sentence of at least double the normal penalty for a two-strike offender who commits a nonserious, nonviolent crime.
"We think it would make California safer because you would have law enforcement resources to focus on violent and dangerous criminals," he said.
Newman said the measure is especially important now, with California's prisons bursting at the seams and its coffers running dry.
When Proposition 36 supporters mention the original intent of California's Three Strikes Law, they may as well be talking about Mike Reynolds.
Reynolds wrote the Three Strikes initiative after his 18-year-old daughter was shot and killed by a repeat offender during a purse-snatching in Fresno, and is leading the opposition to Proposition 36.
"It’s more than just a bad idea—it’s downright dangerous," Reynolds said.
He said Proposition 36 would tell two-strike criminals to keep offending as long as they stay away from the most heinous crimes.
"The best predictor of all human behavior is past behavior," he said. "It’s pretty clear that repeat offenders have demonstrated rather graphically through their prior convictions … what they’ve been doing. You can say with a high degree of predictability they will reoffend."
He argued the current system works because the most notorious criminals—Al Capone, most notably—are sometimes locked up on smaller charges.
"It’s easier to get your kid into Stanford than get a repeat offender into prison," he said.
Reynolds said Proposition 36—which he guesses will pass because of the way it's worded on the ballot—will remove a major deterrent from the minds of repeat offenders.
"Why would they go out and do something stupid when they know they’re facing 25 to life?"
What do you think about repealing the death penalty or narrowing the definition of a third strike? Is it an important issue? Tell us in the comments.