Opponents say the law is fine the way it is, crime is at record low rates, and the bad guys are behind bars.
Currently, the state's "three strikes, you're out" law approved by voters in 1994 imposes sentences of 25 years to life in prison on repeat offenders with two serious or violent felonies on their records when they commit a third felony of any kind.
"Some of these felonies are so petty, so minor, they should not serve as a basis for a 25- years-to-life sentence," said Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, who supports Proposition 36.
If approved, Prop. 36 would change the law so 25-years-to-life sentences are imposed only on criminals who commit serious or violent felonies like murder, rape and robbery. "Two-strike" repeat offenders convicted of nonviolent crimes would instead receive double the ordinary sentence for that crime.
Cooley said the change in the law would do "what is just, what is right" and said crime will not go up.
"It's a very modest limited reform of a very powerful sentencing tool," Cooley said.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, who once served as station commander at the Los Angeles Police Department's Harbor Division in San Pedro, said the measure is about doing what's fair.
"We have a situation where we have people committing relatively minor offenses as third strikes -- a simple shoplifting or a possession of drugs for personal use -- and they can be sent to prison for 25 to life," he said.
Neither Cooley nor San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon currently chooses to prosecute all third felonies as 25-years-to- life cases in their jurisdictions. But most of the state's district attorneys do. The California District Attorneys Association opposes the measure, as do several police officer associations.
Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal, president of the California State Sheriffs' Association, said there is no reason to weaken a law that works.
"It is keeping our community safe," Royal said. "These folks did not get to be three-strikers without committing serious crimes that really impact our communities."
Proponents say the measure could save $70 million to $100 million in court and prison costs, and open cells for the most deserving criminals at a time when the state is under orders to reduce the crowded prison population. The money, Gascon said, could be used for parks and schools.
Royal disagreed that Prop. 36 will save money. People freed early or not sentenced to 25 years to life will return to court and require jail terms, he said.
"We are talking very serious offenders," Royal said. "The bottom line is that these folks, any of them, will commit additional crimes when they hit the streets."
If the law is enacted, about 3,500 inmates currently serving life sentences for a nonserious, nonviolent crime could apply to be re-sentenced. Proponents say no rapists, murderers or child molesters will benefit if Prop. 36 were approved.
Prop. 36's other supporters include Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Others supporters include the city councils of Long Beach, Carson and Inglewood, and the unlikely teaming of conservative activist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, and billionaire liberal businessman George Soros, who has donated $500,000 to the cause.
Prop. 36's opponents include the Los Angeles Police Protective League, several other municipal police officer associations and a number of victim rights groups.
Proposition 36YES means: Some criminal offenders with two prior serious or violent felony convictions who commit certain nonserious, nonviolent felonies would be sentenced to shorter terms in state prison. In addition, some offenders with two prior serious or violent felony convictions who are currently serving life sentences for many nonserious, non-violent felony convictions could be resentenced to shorter prison terms.
NO means: Offenders with two prior serious or violent felony convictions who commit any new felony could continue to receive life sentences. In addition, offenders with two prior serious or violent felony convictions who are currently serving life sentences for nonserious, non-violent felonies would continue to serve the remainder of their life sentences.