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Voters want ‘3 strikes’ reform, but fate of ballot initiative unclear


Come November, California voters might again be weighing changes to the state’s “three strikes” law.

The San Jose Mercury News reported last week that a group is crafting ballot language and seeking high-profile endorsements for an initiative that would require that a third strike result only from a serious or violent felony conviction. Under California’s law, a third strike can be assessed for any felony, at times bringing sentences of 25 years to life prison for those convicted of crimes like petty theft.

On the same day the Mercury News article published, the Field Poll released survey results [PDF] showing 74 percent of registered voters would support altering the three-strikes law. (See full results at bottom.)

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Mark DiCamillo, the Field Poll’s director, said the survey was in no way connected with the proposed ballot measure. (Disclosure: DiCamillo is on California Watch’s advisory board.)

Based on the wording of the poll’s three-strikes question, it’s not clear the results have any bearing on whether voters might back the initiative in the works. The survey question about changing the three-strikes law begins with the phrase, "as a way to ease prison overcrowding.” 

There are roughly 8,800 inmates in state prisons with three strikes [PDF], according to numbers from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. They make up less than 6 percent of the 147,000 prisoners [PDF] now incarcerated.

At a symposium examining the law in May, Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate said inmates serving long terms due to the three-strikes law are not a significant part of the state’s prison overcrowding crisis.

“I don’t view them as a management problem,” Cate said of the so-called “third-strikers.”

The Legislative Analyst's Office concurred in a recent report. "Although the striker population in prison grew quickly in the first years of the law," the office wrote, "the rate of growth has slowed significantly in the past decade as many second strikers complete their sentence and are paroled."

About half of California’s third-strikers were convicted of violent crimes and are unlikely to benefit from the still-theoretical initiative.

The last part of the Field Poll’s question asks about a three-strikes revision different from the proposed initiative. Specifically, respondents were asked whether they support giving “judges and juries more discretion in sentencing persons convicted of a third felony.”

The group organizing a ballot measure, which reportedly includes the Three Strikes Project at Stanford University, seeks a totally different approach.

DiCamillo contends that Californians would support making the three-strikes law less severe, regardless of prison overcrowding or judicial discretion. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that the state's corrections facilities are packed so tight that they are unconstitutional.

“My judgment is the public has always been supportive of this idea in concept,” DiCamillo said. “The question is, push comes to shove, will they maintain that?”

In early October 2004, surveys by the Field Poll and others found a large majority of voters favored Proposition 66 as well. That measure would have restricted the use of three strikes to serious or violent felonies, similar to the provisions being considered now.

But support for Prop. 66 dropped by 19 percentage points in surveys during the campaign’s final month. A horde of state officials and district attorneys railed against the initiative during that period, and it was defeated.

No one has legislatively touched the three-strikes law since.

However, in recent years, Michael Romano, a Stanford law professor, and his students have worked successfully to reduce long prison sentences for minor crimes.

An article in The New York Times Magazine in May 2010 told the story of Norman Williams, whose tale makes him poster-boy material for those seeking a ballot measure. An excerpt:

Williams, who is 46, was a homeless drug addict in 1997 when he was convicted of petty theft, for stealing a floor jack from a tow truck. It was the last step on his path to serving life. In 1982, Williams burglarized an apartment that was being fumigated: he was hapless enough to be robbed at gunpoint on his way out, and later he helped the police recover the stolen property. In 1992, he stole two hand drills and some other tools from an art studio attached to a house; the owner confronted him, and he dropped everything and fled. Still, for the theft of the floor jack, Williams was sentenced to life in prison under California’s repeat-offender law: three strikes and you’re out.

Here is the Field Poll’s full question and full results:

“Agree/Disagree: As a way to ease prison overcrowding, California’s ‘three strikes’ law should be modified to give judges and juries more discretion in sentencing persons convicted of a third felony.”





Agree strongly




Agree somewhat




Disagree somewhat




Disagree strongly




No opinion




Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report


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