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.)

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