California Softens Three-Strikes Law That Allowed Life Sentences For Stealing Socks

California voters did not abolish the state’s death penalty Tuesday night, but they overwhelmingly passed another ballot initiative that may have an even greater impact on the state’s criminal justice system. With the passage of Proposition 36, state residents voted to ease what is known as the “three-strikes law” — thought to have been the harshest of its kind in the country. The original law required judges to sentence third-time offenders who have committed two violent or serious felonies to 25-year-to-life convictions for any felony, regardless of its severity. The Mercury News explains:

The measure, which passed handily by more than a 20 percentage-point margin, revises the Three Strikes Law to impose a life sentence only under two circumstances — when the new felony conviction is “serious or violent,” or for a minor felony crime if the perpetrator is a murderer, rapist or child molester. Under the existing Three Strikes law, only California, out of 24 states with similar laws, allows the third strike to be any felony.

As a result, offenders who have committed such relatively minor third strikes as stealing a pair of socks, attempting to break into a soup kitchen for food, or forging a check for $146 at Nordstrom have been sentenced to life in prison.

The new measure also enables some prisoners who have already been sentenced to apply for early release. More than 4,000 Californians are now serving life sentences under the three-strikes law, 2,000 of those for having committed a minor offense such as possession of a small amount of drugs or petty theft, according to Human Rights Watch. The law is estimated to benefit about 3,000 prisoners, or about a third of those incarcerated for three-strikes offenses.

The vote comes 18 years after the original harsh law was passed by ballot initiative, and times have changed since then. Now, the state is facing prison overcrowding so severe that the U.S. Supreme Court deemed the state’s prison conditions unconstitutional in 2011. As the Los Angeles Times points out, the state is banking on the fact that this initiative will get it closer to reaching its federally mandated prison cap, but not close enough to meet the target by the July deadline. The state has continued to argue that it can find other ways to make its prisons constitutionally adequate, in part by opening a new prison hospital intended to improve access to scant medical care. This is a humane step for prisoners, but one that neither decreases costs nor curbs the mass detention that has earned the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world. More reforms like Proposition 36 that limit excessive sentences for minor nonviolent crimes would accomplish both.