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Voter Guide: Propositions 34 and 36

Proposition 34 would repeal the death penalty, while Proposition 36 would alter the state's "three strikes" law.

California voters will be asked in two propositions on the Nov. 6 ballot whether to fundamentally change how the state deals with its most dangerous criminals.

Proposition 34 would repeal the death penalty and make life imprisonment without the possibility of parole the harshest sentence judges and juries could impose. Proposition 36 would change California's "three strikes" law so perpetrators wouldn't receive life sentences if their third "strike" is a nonviolent or less serious crime.

Supporters say the measures would save the state more than $100 million each, while opponents say they would make the state less safe by removing a major deterrent and shortening prison sentences for repeat-offenders of serious crimes.

Proposition 34 would repeal death penalty

Proposition 34 would eliminate the death penalty, a program supporters of the ballot measure say is slow, inefficient and expensive. 

"Currently we have a death penalty system that costs us a ton of money and simply doesn’t work," said Steve Smith, a consultant for the Yes on Prop 34 campaign. "It's just another broken government program."

According to Smith, death penalty cases are more complicated and therefore more expensive. California's 726 death row inmates also receive special, expensive treatment once they're behind bars: Condemned inmates don't have cellmates, have constant access to the prison law library and receive lawyers for their lengthy appeal process. California has executed 13 death row inmates since resuming the punishment in 1978.

If Proposition 34 passes, some of the money saved by the state would go to a fund officials could dole out to local law enforcement agencies to help solve cold cases.

Smith said despite the costs and moral objections some have to capital punishment, there's another reason people support Proposition 34.

"I think the most commonly held view is the risk of executing an innocent person," he said. "As long as we have the death penalty there is a risk of executing an innocent person." 

Peter DeMarco, a spokesman for the No on Prop 34 campaign, countered that proponents of the ballot measure are making "misleading and inaccurate" claims.

He disagrees that the proposition would save the state money, and says there is no way to ensure the unsolved cases fund would be distributed fairly. 

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office says Proposition 34 would save the state money, but estimates of $130 million in annual savings "could be higher or lower by tens of millions of dollars."

DeMarco said the state should reform its capital punishment process instead, still allowing the condemned to appeal their cases but not sit on death row for decades.

"To suggest that it costs too much, so we should just abandon it, is, quite frankly, gutless," he said.

He added that the proposition would remove the highest-level deterrent available against violent crime, and pointed out law enforcement organizations—the California Coalition of Law Enforcement Agencies, the California Police Chiefs Association and others—that oppose the ballot measure.

"Those groups all represent thousands of rank and file law enforcement officers who are on the streets every day," DeMarco said. "They will tell you that the difference of having the death penalty be applicable in first degree murder cases does make a difference in whether a crime is committed." 

Proposition 36 would redefine 'three strikes' law

Supporters of Proposition 36 say it would make California's "three strikes" law match the original intent of the voters who enacted it in 1994—those who have two "strikes" against them but commit a nonserious or nonviolent crime won't receive a third.

In 1995, Jerry Dewayne Williams received a sentence of 25 years to life for his third strike—stealing a slice of pizza from kids in Redondo Beach. Although Williams' sentence was later reduced, it's the kind of case Dan Newman, a strategist for the Yes on Prop 36 campaign, likes to reference.

"We’ve gotta make smart decisions about using our law enforcement resources," Newman said. "Rapists and murderers get less prison time than nonviolent, three-strike offenders." 

Instead of a 25-years-to-life sentence, Proposition 36 would mandate a sentence of at least double the normal penalty for a two-strike offender who commits a nonserious, nonviolent crime.

"We think it would make California safer because you would have law enforcement resources to focus on violent and dangerous criminals," he said.

Newman said the measure is especially important now, with California's prisons bursting at the seams and its coffers running dry.

When Proposition 36 supporters mention the original intent of California's three strikes law, they may as well be talking about Mike Reynolds.

Reynolds wrote the three strikes initiative after his 18-year-old daughter was shot and killed by a repeat offender during a purse-snatching in Fresno, and he is leading the opposition to Proposition 36.

"It’s more than just a bad idea—it’s downright dangerous," he said.

He said Proposition 36 would tell two-strike criminals to keep offending as long as they stay away from the most heinous crimes.

"The best predictor of all human behavior is past behavior," he said. "It’s pretty clear that repeat offenders have demonstrated rather graphically through their prior convictions … what they’ve been doing. You can say with a high degree of predictability they will reoffend." 

He argued the current system works because the most notorious criminals—Al Capone, most notably—are sometimes locked up on smaller charges.

"It’s easier to get your kid into Stanford than get a repeat offender into prison," Reynolds said.

Reynolds said Proposition 36—which he guesses will pass because of the way it's worded on the ballot—will remove a major deterrent from the minds of repeat offenders.

"Why would they go out and do something stupid when they know they’re facing 25 [years] to life?" 

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R. Ray Morford October 24, 2012 at 02:00 PM
Our prisons are already at full capacity. The death penalty is a deterrent in spite of what liberals might say. A determined period of time should be set to appeal a sentence, then an execution date set. Victim families and the people of this State deserve better.
Dave October 25, 2012 at 04:26 PM
Prop 36 Three Strikes and No, you are still out. Many District Attorneys and Judges want this but my view is; you have already been convicted for two previous felonies, you most certainly know about the three strikes law, then you deliberately commit another felony (and remember, they have to actually get caught first), tough luck and away you go.
Dave October 25, 2012 at 04:27 PM
Prop. 34 – No The Death Penalty is one of those issues where emotion trumps all else. In fact, the Death Penalty in California is doomed anyway. It’s doomed not because voters have or will decide the issue, but doomed because the anti-death penalty people have figured out that they can use the legal system to strangle any attempt to actually execute a convicted murderer. They will just keep filing appeals, run the legal costs up and extend the time between conviction and execution to a point where the convict passes away by natural causes or the system goes bankrupt. Either way, they win. However, I’m voting no for another reason altogether. The so-called SAFE provision of this proposition is ill conceived and so poorly written that the millions they want to get from the general fund and supposed to distribute to local law enforcement, will get tied up in court for years at best and squandered (by the lack of accountability) at worst. If the writers of this proposition want some money, let them reduce the cost of those appeals they are so fond of and ask for it directly.

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