Calif. Voters Reconsider 'Three Strikes' Law

California voters are taking a second whack at "three-strikes" guidelines a decade after they first passed the nation's toughest sentencing law.

Crime and punishment have always made for raw politics, and the rhetoric swirling around Proposition 66 (search) can make it tough to sort out just what it would do.

Pass it Nov. 2, proponents say, and restore sanity to a law that has slapped life sentences on shoplifters and small-time drug users. Opponents say its passage would flood the streets with predatory criminals.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere between.

In essence, Proposition 66 turns on the question of how justice should be administered: Is the goal retribution, or another chance?

"If this thing passes, you're looking at a wholesale bloodbath," said Mike Reynolds, who galvanized California's three-strikes movement following his daughter's 1992 murder.

"A bloodbath — why? We're not letting any violent people out," counters Joe Klaas (search), a leading supporter whose granddaughter was killed in a famous kidnapping case.

The ballot measure is among the most hard-fought of the 16 propositions that Californians will decide this year. The emotionally charged campaign has included opponents sending out mug shots of the most egregious criminals they say would be immediately back on the streets.

Polling suggests voters may opt to change current law. A poll released Wednesday shows nearly two-thirds of likely voters support the proposition.

The three-strikes law gets its name because felons can get 25-years-to-life sentences on their third conviction, provided the first two strikes were serious or violent felonies. The law prompted an unsuccessful appeal to the Supreme Court on behalf of petty criminals.

The ballot measure would change the law in two primary ways.

First, it would require that the maximum sentence only be triggered if a third conviction is a "serious or violent" felony. That requirement would bring California in line with the three-strikes laws of many other states.

Second, Proposition 66 would make eligible for resentencing any inmate serving life if their third strike is not "serious or violent." Judges would reassess whether a felon is serving an unjustifiably long term.

The proposition also shortens the list of strikes by deleting felonies including criminal threats and burglary of an unoccupied residence.

Proponents say the measure achieves what voters really wanted in 1994 when, cowed by a tough-on-crime lobby that gained clout as public safety deteriorated, they passed the original three-strikes proposition. The unintended consequences, they say, were thousands of hard-luck cases forced to become life sentences.

Opponents counter that voters knew just what they were doing: locking up hardcore repeat offenders before they can rape, murder or rob again.

Wildly divergent claims about how many inmates would be released illustrate how superheated the campaign has become.

Proposition 66 backers say no more than 4,100 felons — none the predatory villain that opponents claim — could have their sentences reduced. Opponents assert as many as 26,000 felons could be released.

The Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that some fraction of the current 7,500 third-strikers would be eligible for resentencing, but does not publicly estimate how many might gain freedom.

Another foggy area is how much the proposition might cost.

Proponents hail a legislative analyst's report that says Proposition 66 would save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by reducing the prison population. Opponents call that ridiculous, saying it would cost millions to beef up law enforcement to catch and imprison newly released strikers who will inflict suffering on the public that cannot be measured.

Klaas is among the prominent supporters. He is the grandfather of Polly Klaas, the girl whose brutal kidnapping and murder made her the poster child for the 1994 law. The issue is so divisive that the proposition has driven a wedge between Joe Klaas and his son, Marc, Polly's father and an ardent opponent of Proposition 66.