In 1994, amid a national panic over crime, California voters adopted the most stringent U.S. three-strikes law, sentencing repeat felons to 25 years to life, even if the third offense was a minor theft. The law epitomized the tough-on-crime policies that produced overflowing prisons and soaring costs. Now, voters appear poised to scale back the heavy reliance on incarceration they once embraced, with a plan, Proposition 47, to transform several lower-level, nonviolent felonies into misdemeanors punishable by brief jail stays, if that, rather than time in a state penitentiary, the New York Times reports.
“Law enforcement has been on an incarceration binge for 30 years, and it hasn't worked,” said George Gascón, the San Francisco district attorney and a former police chief who is the main sponsor along with a former police chief of San Diego. For the large numbers of nonviolent offenders with mental health or substance abuse problems, Gascón said, “Incarceration doesn't fix the problem.” The measure has drawn harsh attack from law enforcement officials, including most district attorneys and the police chiefs association, which calls it “a dangerous and radical package” that will “endanger Californians.” A September poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found 62 percent of voters backing the initiative, and 25 percent opposing it.