California's Three Strikes law has incapacitated thousands of repeat felons, appropriately so. But the 1994 law also has led to disproportionately long sentences for some individuals whose third strike was for a minor crime.
Proposition 36 would sand down some of the law's rough edges on this important law and ensure that it is applied equally across all 58 counties. But the measure would leave the law's strong heart in place. It deserves a "yes" vote Nov. 6. In 1994, voters enraged by the kidnap-murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a repeat felon approved the initiative that created the Three Strikes law.
Under the law, judges must impose sentences of 25 years to life for people who are convicted of two violent or serious crimes and who then commit a third felony, regardless of what that third felony is. Serious and violent criminals deserve harsh sentences. But individuals who commit petty crimes on their third strike end up with sentences far in excess of what is fair.
Their incarceration comes at a cost. The Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that Prop. 36 would shave $70 million to $90 million off the $9 billion annual prison budget.
Voters rejected an attempt to water down Three Strikes in 2004. Proposition 36 is much more modest. As it is, Three Strikes doubles sentences for criminals who are convicted of a violent or serious felony, and commit another felony. About 33,000 of the 138,000 inmates are serving enhanced sentences under this provision. Prop. 36 would not affect second-strikers.