Most California voters see a court order to reduce the state’s prison population by 30,000 inmates as a serious problem, and nearly three out of four say it is time to revamp the state’s “three-strikes” law, a Field Poll out today finds.
The poll comes on the heels of last month’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court ordering California to address its prison overcrowding problem, and 79 percent of those surveyed said the matter is serious.
But there were not similar margins of support for Gov. Jerry Brown’s plans to transfer lower-risk inmates from prisons to county jails.
The poll found 51 percent of voters support the plan, with 37 percent saying it is a bad idea. Yet less than a majority of voters would support an extension of temporary tax increases to pay for it, the poll found.
“The voters are not willing to pay the piper on this,” Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said.
“Voters really are less supportive of the prisons and the budgets that are given to the prisons,” DiCamillo added. “They’d much rather fund the K-12 schools or higher education or health care.”
The most significant finding came when voters were asked whether the state’s three-strikes law, which passed in 1994, should be modified to allow judges and juries more discretion when sentencing a criminal for a third felony.
The poll found 74 percent of voters would support allowing that discretion to ease prison overcrowding, with 24 percent opposed.
“It is the striking thing in the poll,” DiCamillo said.
The sentiment on the need to modify the three-strikes law, which requires a 25 year-to-life sentence upon a third felony conviction, had support among both Democrats and Republicans and mirrored previous polling on the topic.
In 2004, when voters were being asked to decide on a ballot measure to modify the law, the Field Poll initially found strong support for the measure. In May of that year, voters supported modifying the law by a margin of 76 percent to 14 percent.
In the closing days of the campaign, however, with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown opposing the measure, it went down to a narrow defeat.
“There was a comfortable lead for that initiative until the final week, and that’s when it just turned on a dime,” DiCamillo said.
Mike Reynolds, who spearheaded the ballot campaign in 1994 for three-strikes after the murder of his daughter, said Wednesday that support for changing the law will erode as people know more about it.
He noted that judges already have the ability to dismiss a defendant’s strike if needed to avoid overly harsh sentences.
“They already have discretion and very frankly are using it in vast quantities,” he said. “Judges are knocking down third strikes in a number of cases.”
The current poll results may be indicative of the public paying more attention to prison issues because of the Supreme Court ruling and the governor’s plans to transfer inmates to county jails, and DiCamillo noted that “this particular issue is one that’s susceptible to fears of crime.”
There have been discussions among some about launching a new effort to modify the three-strikes law, and some voters who took part in the Field Poll had strong views on how the law is working.
“They were idiots when they (passed) it,” said Billy Taylor, a 40-year-old Chico Democrat. “If you’ve got two violent offenses and you get a possession of marijuana, that should not be a three-strikes offense.
“You’re going to flood the prisons that way. It’s just stupid. They’re putting everybody in prison for just minute things.”
But Robert Allen, a 42-year-old Navy veteran from Auberry in Fresno County, said he believes the law is working and should not be changed.
“Every time I’ve seen anything modified, it gets modified again and again until it never looks like it was originally supposed to,” said Allen, who voted for the measure in 1994 and said he leans toward Republican positions.
“I’ve known people with two strikes, and it made a world of difference in their lives,” Allen said. “It makes them more law-abiding.”
This story originally appeared in the Sacramento Bee. Sam Stanton was a 2011 Reporting Fellow of the Three Strikes Symposium sponsored by the Public Welfare Foundation and the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College. Click here to read his earlier story on California’s Three Strikes Law.