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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," Reynolds 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," he 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?"

Shelley Marks Kramer November 05, 2012 at 08:39 PM
I agree with irma. Why do we have to pay for criminals to be in jail on our dime YEs they should suffer if they have created horrendous crimes. If they kill someone or do harm to anyone, they should pay the price. We should not have to support people in prison who are deadbeats and will probably get released and go out and create more crime. Criminals are what they are, no good. Yes innocent people will get jail, but that is life, and if they have a good enough story to back up their innocence, so be it. I just cannot understand why we have to pay for criminals in jail, "for life", they get all the benefits even regular people cannot afford. Our criminal system is the "crime". Keep the death penalty, get rid of all the hardened criminals and save the public money that could be spent elsewhere.
Ben Gaffin November 06, 2012 at 01:11 AM
If someone is a co conspirator to murder what do they have to gain by giving up their friends if there's no death penalty ? They'll just get life either way. Faced with the death penalty, they'll give up their friends !! The only other possibility is to offer them a reduced sentence for talking. A reduced sentence for a murderer ? You decide. Serial killers would be another group I wouldn't lose any sleep over. When was the last time anyone's heard of someone wrongly convicted of 15 murders and then executed ? I am in favor of life without parole for murderers, but with the previously mentioned exceptions and a final one. If someone serving life for first degree murder commits another murder in prison (like another inmate of guard) they should face the death penalty. Otherwise they have nothing to lose by committing another murder. They're already serving life.
Marcus November 06, 2012 at 01:38 AM
Life without parole is all we need. The only time we could morally argue in favor of killing might be in self defense, either for ourselves or our families and indeed our country. The irony is that criminals on death row are against this Prop since they know that less legal resources would be available to them were they just handed L withour parole sentences.
Ben Gaffin November 06, 2012 at 03:58 AM
Marcus: If life without parole is all we need what would you do with serial killers ? And if they kill again once serving life what would you do with them ? Take away their TV privileges ? There needs to be a severe consequence for these offenders and having life in prison be the max sentence no matter what they do isn't moral at all. Compared to the total number of murderers, the percentage I'm talking about here is tiny. These people have proven by their actions that as long as they live, no one around them is safe. If you can come up with something besides executing them that would make people they interact with safe I'm all ears. Conspiracy to commit murder is another reason to at least keep the death penalty on the books. If three people conspire to kill someone, and you catch one, how do you get them to give up their pals ? If the max they can get is life, they won't. Again these are tiny percentages of killers I'm talking about here. For most of them life without parole is all we need. I'm just saying I think there are a few, but important exceptions.
Marcus November 06, 2012 at 06:18 AM
If someone is convicted and gets Life without Parole then thats fine by me. If they kill again while inside, then I'm sure, they'd be sentenced yet again to life. It all depends on what is life: 20, 25 or your actual life. As for your conspiracy issue? I have no idea how a criminal might think. But my guess is that they'd soon sing given the reality that they would be the only ones convicted if they didn't cooperate. Death penalty isn't really a deterrent. Murder continues regardless of the possibility of this sentencing.

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