Proposition 36 seeks to reform California’s existing “three strikes” sentencing scheme, which allows for a person to be sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of a third felony crime. The law came into place after the shocking kidnapping and murder in California of 12-year old Polly Klaas in 1993, by a person with prior criminal offenses. Following the crime, the country became enamored of an anti-crime program based on the baseball term, “three strikes and you’re out.”
A “three strikes” initiative was enacted by California voters in 1994 that advocates claimed would send the most dangerous repeat offenders to prison for life. But the initiative was very poorly drafted. Even minor non-violent offenses like simple possession of drugs were counted as “strikes” leading to life imprisonment. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a life sentence under the law for a “third strike” of stealing golf clubs, Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11 (2003).
According to the California Department of Corrections, 54 percent of the prisoners serving life sentences under the “three strikes” law were sentenced for non-violent offenses. In addition, there is shocking racial disproportionality in the use of these provisions: 45 percent of “three strikes” life prisoners are African-American, even though California is only 6.6 percent African-American.
Proposition 36 would remove minor drug offenses like simple possession as “strikes” under the “three strikes” law. Thus Proposition 36 is an important step to reduce the over-stigmatization of drug use and abuse and use of minor drug offenses as a means to populate the nation’s prisons. Proposition 36 would reform the “three strikes” law to provide that only people convicted of murder, rape or child molestation would qualify for “three strike” sentences.
Limiting the scope of crimes would also reduce the number of people forced to negotiate guilty pleas in order to avoid a life sentence under the “three strikes” law.
The proposition would permit thousands of persons who have been sentenced inappropriately to life imprisonment or other very long mandatory sentences for non-violent or non-serious offenses to obtain a re-sentencing hearing.
SSDP believes that the changes proposed by Prop 36 greatly contribute to sensible drug policy and help reduce the harms of drug prohibition.