For a state long considered loosey-goosey liberal, California has been
rock-ribbed conservative on crime. Only four times in the past century have
the state's voters supported ballot measures designed to ease the state's
But on Nov. 6, voters will have the rare option of changing that pattern. For the first time in the state's history, two major crime-related initiatives that would soften the toughest laws on the books will appear on the same ballot.
Proposition 34 would repeal the death penalty, while Proposition 36 would ease the nation's harshest Three Strikes sentencing law.
Experts say Proposition 34 will face a tougher go. It requires voters to do an about-face and reject their historical embrace of capital punishment.
In contrast, Proposition 36 asks voters to change the Three Strikes Law by reserving life sentences for the baddest of the bad -- while leaving many of its central features intact for violent, repeat criminals.
But with crime rates relatively low statewide, proponents say there has never been a better time to test whether voters in this blue state are in the mood to be less red on public safety.
"Criminal offenders have not been terribly attractive in the politics of California initiatives," said crime expert Franklin E. Zimring, a UC Berkeley law professor. "But it's not inevitable they all get turned down."
According to an analysis by this newspaper, the only measures approved by voters since 1912 to curb the power of the state's criminal justice system involved:
--Due process rights for the accused in 1934.
--The right to the assistance of an attorney in 1972.
--Legalization of medical marijuana in 1996.
--Drug treatment rather than incarceration for certain offenders in 2000.
Eight years ago, Proposition 66, a more far-reaching attempt to weaken the Three Strikes Law, narrowly lost.
In the past 100 years, voters embraced 38 measures to strengthen the criminal justice system.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, they approved nine measures to build prisons and jails when violent crime was soaring. And in the 2000s, when it was plummeting, they beefed up penalties for gang-related felonies and sex crimes.
Even liberal politicians like former Govs. Gray Davis and Jerry Brown have advanced tough-on-crime policies. Davis didn't parole a single lifer during his five years in office. And Brown was instrumental in defeating Proposition 66 in 2004 by joining GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in a last-minute TV blitz that swung the electorate against the measure.
But legal experts and proponents of the two independently run campaigns say California may well be ripe for change. With voters' attention more focused on economic worries and the state's multibillion-dollar deficit, the spiraling cost of the justice system may be more of a concern.
"In a time when all sorts of programs are being cut back, I think it's rational for people to decide whether they want the death penalty," said former Chief Justice Ronald George.
George, who has taken no public position on Proposition 34, is a death penalty supporter who has called California's version of it "dysfunctional."
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