The New York Times has weighed in on next week’s California vote on potential changes to its 10-year-old “three strikes” sentencing law. The newspaper notes that the father and grandfather of Polly Klaas, whose killing helped enact the measure, are on opposite sides of an impassioned campaign that some experts say reflects a broad rethinking of the nation’s tough-on-crime legislation. “The politics of crime and punishment has calmed down,” said Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of a book about the three-strikes law. “It isn’t that people are less punitive; they are less concerned.” Zimring adds: “Any two-sided debate about three strikes is a real novelty in California. The fact that we are having this kind of conversation is already evidence of an enormous sea change in criminal justice.”
The ballot measure, Proposition 66, would put California more in line with the 24 other states that have three-strikes laws. The change would restrict so-called third-strike offenses for repeated felons, which require a 25-year-to-life sentence, to serious or violent crimes. George Soros, the philanthropist and financier, has contributed $150,000 to the campaign, as have Peter Lewis, chairman of the Progressive Corporation insurance company, and John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix. The three also supported a successful ballot measure in 2000, which requires many nonviolent drug offenders to be sent into treatment instead of prison. The biggest donor is Sacramento businessman Jerry Keenan, who contributed $1.9 million toward the signature-gathering effort and $800,000 toward the initiative’s passage. Keenan’s son, Richard, is serving an eight-year prison term for vehicular manslaughter stemming from the deaths of two of his passengers when he crashed his car in 1999 after drinking beer and smoking marijuana. It is possible the sentence would be reduced if Proposition 66 passes. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Attorney General Bill Lockyer, and every district attorney in the state defend of the existing statute, as does the politically influential correctional officers’ union.