The state also is under a federal court order to relieve prison overcrowding, a predicament that proponents of a more lenient Three Strikes measure are using to bolster their proposal to send fewer people to prison for life.
It won't hurt supporters of Propositions 34 and 36 that the state's crime rate has dropped to 1960s levels.
"Proponents of these measures see an opportunity that might not exist at a time when voters are worried about public safety," said Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics.
Proposition 34 gives voters the first opportunity in more than three decades to consider whether to scrap the death penalty and clear the largest death row in the nation's history. It would replace execution with life in prison without the possibility of parole and create a $100 million fund to be distributed to law enforcement agencies to help solve more homicide and rape cases.
It is opposed by law enforcement, victims' rights groups and former Republican Govs. Wilson and George Deukmejian, who argue that the death penalty should be preserved for the state's most heinous killers and that the system should be fixed and sped up, not scrapped.
With 726 inmates now on death row, California has executed just 13 murderers since 1978. No one has been executed since February 2006 because of legal challenges to the state's lethal injection procedures. Death row inmates' appeals now take decades to resolve.
The cost of carrying out the death penalty has grown so large that it has become the cornerstone of the Proposition 34 campaign. Rather than raising traditional arguments against the death penalty -- that it is unfair or risks executing the innocent -- the Yes on 34 campaign is urging voters to scrap the punishment because of the higher cost of everything from death penalty trials to housing death row inmates.
Californians continue to support the death penalty, although the margin has declined in polls since more than 70 percent of voters put the law back on the books in 1978. Two recent statewide polls, while showing a close call on Proposition 34, nevertheless showed majority support for capital punishment. And a recent Los Angeles Times/USC Dornsife poll showed that Republicans and independent voters are unswayed by the fiscal argument.
"In the death penalty situation, you're dealing with very strong, emotional reactions," said former state Attorney General John Van de Kamp, who supports Proposition 34.
In contrast, voters are responding to the two-pronged strategy of Proposition 36 backers, who argue that the current law is unfair and a waste of taxpayer dollars.
The Three Strikes initiative was crafted by a group of Stanford University law professors and modeled on a proposal written years ago by Proposition 36 backer Steve Cooley, the Republican district attorney of Los Angeles County.
California is the only one of the 26 states with Three Strikes laws to allow prosecutors to charge any felony as a third strike -- and then to lock up the offenders for 25 years to life, if a judge approves. Under the existing law, offenders who have committed such relatively minor third strikes as stealing a pair of socks, attempting to break into a soup kitchen to get
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