Will California Voters Buck History and Ease Tough-on-Crime Laws?


For a state long considered what the San Jose Mercury News calls loosey-goosey liberal, California has been rock-ribbed conservative on crime. Only four times in the past century have the state’s voters supported ballot measures designed to ease the state’s tough-on-crime laws. On Nov. 6, voters have the rare option of changing that pattern. For the first time in state history, two major crime-related initiatives that would soften the toughest laws on the books will appear on the same ballot.

Proposition 34 would repeal the death penalty, while Proposition 36 would ease the nation’s harshest Three Strikes sentencing law. Experts say Proposition 34 will face a tougher go. It requires voters to do an about-face and reject their historical embrace of capital punishment. In contrast, Proposition 36 asks voters to change the Three Strikes Law by reserving life sentences for the baddest of the bad — while leaving many of its central features intact for violent, repeat criminals. But with crime rates relatively low statewide, proponents say there has never been a better time to test whether voters in this blue state are in the mood to be less red on public safety. “Criminal offenders have not been terribly attractive in the politics of California initiatives,” said Franklin Zimring, a UC Berkeley law professor. “But it’s not inevitable they all get turned down.”

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