If passed, the initiative would modify the state's Three Strikes law for repeat felons by requiring the third conviction to be for a serious or violent crime to warrant a mandatory 25-years-to-life prison sentence. As it stands, a person convicted of a felony, regardless of the type of crime, can be sentenced to the maximum penalty if the two previous convictions were serious or violent.
Supporters of the initiative say reforming the penalty will save the state money and help relieve California's overcrowded prisons. They say the reforms are more equitable and prevent criminals from serving unfairly long prison sentences for relatively minor crimes.
They argue that reducing the number of criminals sentenced under three strikes will save the state at least $100 million a year because of fewer parole hearings and earlier release dates. Prop 36 would double the maximum sentence of the crime for a third-time offender.
About 2,800 inmates now serving 25 years to life could have their sentences reduced if Proposition 36 passes.
That concerns opponents, who argue that the country's strictest Three Strikes law is on the books for a good reason—to lock up the state's most violent repeat offenders. They say no changes are necessary.
"The current Three Strikes law has directly and significantly acted to reduce crime in California," the California District Attorneys Association wrote in a position paper opposing the initiative. "The Three Strikes law is a valuable, essential, and proven tool in the fight against crime."
Opponents have been vastly outspent by supporters, who raised nearly $3 million. They are led by billionaire George Soros, who donated $1 million, and Stanford University lecturer and lawyer David Mills, who contributed $953,000 and helped write Proposition 36. Several police union have contributed to the opposition.
Supporters have used the money to air statewide television ads featuring Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, all of whom back the initiative.
"The state should not allow the misallocation of limited penal resources by having life prison sentences for those who do not pose a serious criminal threat to society," Cooley said. "The punishment should fit the crime."