World

Why Californians Reformed Their ‘Three Strikes’ Law

(Corrects headline, third, fourth and fifth paragraph of a story published Nov. 7 to reflect that the vote would reform California’s sentencing law.)

Nov. 7 (Bloomberg) -- California’s tax-increase and union-reform initiatives received most of the national attention in the run-up to Election Day. But two significant criminal-justice initiatives also came before voters.

The lack of attention to them showed how much attitudes have changed in a state where liberals and conservatives were once locked in a law-and-order arms race.

One proposition called for ending the state’s infrequently used death penalty. It lost but not overwhelmingly, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this issue comes up again. Political discussions in California often start with a statewide initiative.

The second proposition -- to reform California’s notorious “three strikes and you’re out” sentencing law -- was approved by about 69 percent of voters and marks a political turning point for conservatives as well as liberals.

Conservatives had long championed “three strikes” as a way to crack down on career criminals and take liberal judges out of the process. The law mandated severe sentences for people who committed a third offense -- even if that third conviction is for a nonviolent and nonserious felony. The law proved extremely costly and has produced highly publicized unjust treatment. In one case, a man’s third strike came after he stole a slice of pizza. The new proposition reforms the three-strikes law passed in 1994: The third strike won’t lead to a life sentence if it isn’t serious or violent.

A number of prominent California conservatives backed the shift, driven perhaps by frustration at the powerful prison-guards union and its members’ lavish pay and benefit packages.

The passage of the initiative signified more than a change in thinking among the state’s declining Republican-oriented electorate. Many California Democrats had refused to be outflanked by the right on law-and-order issues. In his successful race for governor in 1998, Democrat Gray Davis ratcheted up the hysteria when he pledged to execute 14-year-old killers. He beat Republican Dan Lungren, then the state attorney general, who championed his role in pushing the three-strikes law and other harsh policies.

Lungren, who went on to become a congressman representing a district south of Sacramento, appears to have lost his re-election campaign this year. Public-safety issues were barely mentioned.

(Steven Greenhut, a contributor to Bloomberg View, is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.)

Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View columnists and editors at the Ticker.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE
    Comments