California votes to change controversial 'three strikes' law

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On Tuesday, California residents voted to pass Proposition 36, the ballot measure aimed at reforming the state’s controversial Three Strikes law.

Huffington Post reported that the original 1994 law mandated a life sentence for individuals convicted of three serious crimes. Unforeseen consequences led to cases in which people who had been convicted of two serious crimes received life terms for committing a third felony, which at times was as minor as shoplifting. California’s prison populations rapidly grew as a result.

Prop 36 now requires the third offense be something of a very serious or violent nature for the law to be applied. This change may also provide an opportunity for nearly 3,000 inmates, jailed under the original law, to petition for reduced terms.

“Tonight’s vote on Proposition 36 sends a powerful message to policymakers in California and across the country that taxpayers are ready for a new direction in criminal justice,” Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project, told the San Jose Mercury News. “States that have already made some changes to their sentencing laws may be inspired to take a second look, and states that haven’t made significant changes yet may start.”

California spends a larger percentage of the budget on prisons than it does on higher education, a fact that helped prompt the change in law. It’s estimated that Prop 36 will save up to $90 million a year.

Mike Reynolds, the author of the original law, is concerned about the changes. His daughter was murdered by two habitual offenders, and he’s afraid changing the law will increase crime.

“It’s a big day for criminals and their attorneys,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is not the first time the Three Strikes law has been reformed. In 2000, voters elected for an amendment which allowed non-violent drug offenders to be sent to treatment programs instead of prison.

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