Proposition 36 Stops Life Sentences for Nonviolent Offenses
November 7, 2012

Under California’s three-strikes sentencing scheme, people could end up serving life sentences for crimes as minor as shoplifting.

Alba Morales, criminal justice researcher

(Los Angeles) – Voters’ approval of Proposition 36, which limits the reach of California’s “three-strikes” statute, is an important step toward a more humane sentencing system in the state, Human Rights Watch said today.

“Under California’s three-strikes sentencing scheme, people could end up serving life sentences for crimes as minor as shoplifting,” said Alba Morales, criminal justice researcher at Human Rights Watch. “By rejecting such inhumane, excessive punishments for nonviolent crimes, Californians are setting a new example for other states to follow.”

Proposition 36 amends California’s 1994 three-strikes law by eliminating its imposition of extremely harsh sentences for nonviolent crimes. Previously, a defendant with two violent or serious felony convictions would receive a mandatory 25-year-to-life sentence upon a third felony conviction, regardless of whether that third felony was violent or serious. Proposition 36 retains a sentencing enhancement for a third nonviolent felony conviction, but ends the mandatory 25-year-to-life sentences in these cases.

An overwhelming majority of California voters approved Proposition 36, similar to the proportion who voted for the 1994 three-strikes law, which was also passed by ballot initiative. The ballot initiative process allows California voters to propose legislation and petition for a popular vote on the proposed legislation.

The 1994 California three-strikes statute was the second such law to be implemented in the United States and helped kick off a nationwide wave of similar laws. At the height of three-strikes’ popularity, 26 states and the federal government had such sentencing regimes in place, but California’s was the harshest and resulted in the highest number of inmates serving life sentences in the nation.

More than 4,000 California inmates are serving life sentences under its three-strikes law. More than 2,000 of those inmates received their third “strike” for nonviolent or non-serious third offenses, such as petty theft and possession of small amounts of drugs, making them eligible for resentencing under Proposition 36. California was the only state that applied its three-strikes statute to such minor offenses.

Due in part to punitive sentencing measures such as three-strikes, California’s prison population has exploded in the past few decades. Conditions deteriorated to the point at which, in 2011, the US Supreme Court held that overcrowding was preventing the state from providing the constitutionally mandated level of care to its inmates and ordered California to reduce its prison population.

The increased use of life sentences also contributed to the growth of the elderly prison population, an issue Human Rights Watch studied in its 2012 report, “Old Behind Bars.” That report noted that the elderly inmate population in California increased fivefold between 1990 and 2009.

The new amendment to the law is retroactive but resentencing will be discretionary. Inmates sentenced under three-strikes can petition for resentencing, but a judge will make the final decision on whether resentencing is appropriate in individual cases.

Proposition 36 does not address all the problems with the state’s three-strikes sentencing system, such as the fact that offenses committed by juveniles may be counted toward the three strikes. But this partial reform is a step in the right direction, Human Rights Watch said.

“Sentencing people to grow old and die in prison for non-serious offenses is disproportionate and cruel,” Morales said. “By passing Proposition 36, Californians have voted for a sensible and fair reform.”