LOS ANGELES (AP) — California voters appeared to be of two minds on criminal justice issues put to them on this year's ballot.
They overwhelming voted to reform one of the country's toughest Three Strikes laws, lessening the severity of some of the state's harshest penalties. At the same time, a majority of voters reaffirmed their long-standing support for the death penalty.
Supporters of both measures campaigned with promises that passage would save cash-strapped California tens of millions of dollars annually.
That financial argument boosted support for Proposition 36, but failed to sway enough voters for Proposition 34, which failed 52 percent to 48 percent.
Analysts who followed the fate of both measures said in the end, it was easier for voters to envision a tweak to a law that many already believed was flawed than to take the dramatic step of tossing out the death penalty, which has deep support among Californians.
"They were very different measures," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. "Proposition 36 was a relatively modest modification."
The three strikes measure, which passed 69 percent to 31 percent, sought only to bring California's law more into line with the 24 other states with similar laws rather than repeal it.
Now, an offender's "third strike" must be a serious or violent felony to garner a prison sentence of 25-years-to-life in prison. Previously, any third felony conviction — regardless of severity — triggered the sentence. Proposition 36 will cut costs through fewer parole hearings and shorter sentences for many and some 2,800 prisoners serving life sentences can now apply for sentence reductions.
Even though the death penalty remains the law after Proposition 34 failed at the polls, it will still be many months, if not years, until California executes its next death row inmate. That's because state and federal lawsuits filed by death row inmates have prevented executions since 2006. Federal and state judges have ordered a temporary halt until prison officials adopt new lethal injection procedures to ensure no inmate suffers "cruel and unusual" pain.
Voters, however, likely paid little attention to the legal wrangling and claims of savings for the state and voted with their gut, said Stanford University law school professor Robert Weisberg.
"Death penalty issues are very abstract and symbolic," Weisberg said. "Positions on the death penalty tend to be a matter of attitude and the costs don't mean that much."
Both sides of the death penalty debate said the relatively close vote supported their cause.
Those who opposed the measure said many death penalty supporters voted for the measure out of frustration with costs and delays.
McGregor Scott, the former U.S. Attorney for Sacramento and co-chair of the opposition campaign, called on the Legislature to reform the capital punishment process in the state by streamlining the appeals process, scrapping the state's three-drug cocktail in favor of a single drug lethal injection and passing other measures. Scott said if lawmakers fail to address the death penalty, capital punishment supporters will place a measure on the 2014 ballot to implement the reforms.
"The problems with delay and expense of California's death penalty are entirely fixable," he said.
Death penalty opponents, however, saw encouragement for their cause in a relatively tight race and vowed to continue to try to abolish it.
Campaign manager Natasha Minsker said there has been "dramatic shift" in California voters' view of the death penalty. She noted that 71 percent of the electorate voted to enact the death penalty in 1978 compared to 48 percent who voted to repeal it Tuesday.
Minsker said the success of the three strikes initiative was due in part to an ongoing campaign among criminal justice reformers to change that law rather than to repeal it.
Minkser said voters for the first time in decades were asked to consider the death penalty.
"The results show the state is equally divided," she said. "We are going to continue moving forward with the voters."