California voters decide to keep the death penalty, but overwhelmingly favor Three Strikes Law reform

By Amy Chapman on November 7, 2012

Two landmark criminal justice initiatives were on the ballot November 6, and California voted for an interesting split decision on reform. Voters upheld the California's costly death penalty, but decided to reform the Three Strikes Law. Proposition 34, which would have replaced the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, was defeated 52.8% to 47.2%. Had the death penalty been abolished, California would have saved $130 million a year by eliminating costly capital trials and their lengthy appeals. If Proposition 34 passed, $100 million a year would have gone to local police agencies to help solve cold murder and rape cases. On the other hand, Proposition 36, a ballot initiative to reform part of the Three Strikes Law, was easily approved 68.6% to 31.4%. The new law will require that only murderers, rapists, and child molesters will receive life in prison if their third "strike" is not a serious or violent felony. Those offenders with two strikes on their record who are convicted of a new non-violent, non-serious felony will no longer be subject to 25 years to life, but will still face lengthy state prison sentences. California will save $70 million annually from this reform in the Three Strikes Law.

Sonoma County voters favored abolishing the death penalty
In Sonoma County, 56.6% of voters favored Proposition 34 and 43.4% voted against it. In the past decades, the Sonoma County District Attorney's office has been mindful of its citizens' stance on the death penalty and has only elected to pursue capital punishment for the most extreme and heinous of murders. The last Sonoma County criminal sentenced to death was Robert Scully, who was convicted of the 1995 murder of Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy Frank Trejo. Other notable Sonoma County death sentences from the 1990's were Richard Allen Davis and Ramon Salcido. Any time a person is charged with murder with special circumstances, the District Attorney has the option of pursuing the death penalty or life without the possibility of parole. The Sonoma County District Attorney's office has successfully convicted numerous defendants of murder with special circumstances and had them sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. By avoiding expensive and lengthy capital trials, the Sonoma County District Attorney's office has brought killers to justice more quickly and at less expense to the tax payers. A sentence of life without the possibility of parole goes through the appellate process much faster than a death sentence, which could bring a sense of finality of victim's families sooner.

The changing tide of Three Strikes
Ironically, the Three Strikes Law came into play in California in response to career criminal Richard Allen Davis's final heinous crime. But now Three Strikes is being rolled back while the death penalty stands. A 2004 ballot initiative to change some of the provisions of the Three Strikes Law failed after a last minute push by then Governor Schwarzenegger to oppose it. Since then, California continued to face a crisis of prison overcrowding, soaring costs of incarceration, and a federal order to reduce its prison population. Public sentiment about Three Strikes clearly shifted during that time as the 2012 initiative easily passed. Sonoma County voters were even more in favor of Proposition 36 and approved it 75.9% to 24.1%. According to statistics kept by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Sonoma County may have approximately nine inmates currently serving life sentences as a "third strike" for non-violent, non-serious felonies. Those inmates may qualify to petition the court to be resentenced under the new law. The trial court would still have the discretion to either resentence the inmate as a second striker or uphold the original sentence if the reduction would create an unreasonable risk to public safety. Offenders who are currently facing a Three Strikes case will be subject to the new law.

To find out more about the effect that Proposition 36 could have on a case, contact a Sonoma County Three Strikes lawyer for more information.