Calif. Affirms Death Penalty, Amends 'Three Strikes'

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Several thousand prisoners in California may be eligible to apply for sentence reductions, after voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative Tuesday that alters the state's controversial three-strikes law.

But voters also rejected a proposition that would abolish the death penalty in the state. Proposition 34 would have replaced capital punishment with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

"I guess the next step, then, is to start executing these monsters that exist on death row," says Mark Klass, the father of Polly Klass, a 12-year-old girl who was brutally kidnapped, raped and murdered in 1993.

Klass says he's relieved that the man convicted of the crime will remain on death row. "They understand that for that worst 2 percent of murders — those individuals who kill little children, who kill police officers, who are serial killers, who are mass murderers, who are psychopathic and show absolutely no remorse — those are the individuals that we can do without," Klass says.

Law Stands, But Support Appears To Erode

More than 700 inmates are currently on California's death row, and 14 of them have now exhausted all of their legal appeals. It's still unclear, however, when executions would resume in California.

Former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti had joined with the ACLU and a former head warden of San Quentin prison to try to abolish the state's death penalty. He says both sides agree that the death penalty does not serve as a crime deterrent.

"So what is it? It's revenge," he says.

Garcetti argues that the state has spent $4 billion to house death row inmates and pay for their appeals. And though capital punishment still stands, Garcetti says Tuesday's vote nevertheless shows that Californians increasingly oppose the death penalty.

"Look at how many voters in 1978 passed the death penalty law that's in effect today. That's 71 percent. Now we're down to 53 percent in favor of the death penalty," Garcetti says. "They'll come over, so it's a matter of time, that's what it is."

A 'Modest' Legal Change, A 'Monster' Political One

While Californians rejected Proposition 34, they did vote to change the state's three-strikes law. The revision eliminates the mandatory 25 years-to-life sentence for a third felony, if that crime is nonviolent.

As many as 3,000 prisoners could appeal their original sentences in the wake of the vote, which worries Mike Reynolds, the author of the original three-strikes law, adopted in 1994.

"It's going to destroy the deterrent value of the three-strikes law," Reynolds says. "This is going to bring a lot more bloodshed and a lot more costs to our state in terms of crime and dealing with it."

But Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley says those fears are unfounded. "Hordes of people are not going to be released," he says. "Not under this very modest proposal."

Cooley says repeat offenders will still have to serve time, but their sentences now will be proportionate to the crime committed. He says that's a practice L.A. County has already been following successfully for the past 12 years.

"Our crime rate's at a 60-year low here in Los Angeles County," Cooley says. "We're not clogging our courts with trials of relatively minor, nonserious, nonviolent felonies, and we're assuring proportionate sentencing based upon the nature of the new offense."

"Legally speaking, it's a modest change in the three-strikes law, but politically speaking, it's a monster change," says Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Center on the States.

Gelb says until now, California has had the nation's harshest three-strikes law. He says the vote to revise it confirms that people are tired of spending money on nonviolent offenders serving long prison sentences.

"California helped start this three-strikes trend many years ago," Gelb says. "And this vote to scale it back is going to resonate across the country for years to come."

Gelb says this could mean other states will begin to reform their three-strikes laws, too.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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