This article is cross-posted from The Crime Report. To see at-a-glance results of the nearly two dozen criminal justice state ballot measures, please check an interactive map here.
Last week’s presidential election, as measured by the popular vote, showed the nation was as divided along partisan lines as ever, voters in many states proved themselves willing to take a more pragmatic approach to once-divisive criminal justice issues.
The majorities in favor of permitting medical use of marijuana—and in two states support for outright legalization—were examples.
Another was the passage of California’s Proposition 36, which revised the long-controversial “Three Strikes” policy—one of the thorniest legacies from the “tough on crime” era—which mandates life sentences for a third conviction, even if it was for a non-violent offense.
After several unsuccessful attempts over the years to modify the policy, nearly 70 percent of Californians agreed that it was time to change.
“Californians were saying we shouldn’t put shoplifters in jail for life, that’s something that clearly most people agree with,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law, who unsuccessfully argued against the law before the Supreme Court several years ago.
The proposition approved by Californians mandates that life sentences only be given when a new felony conviction is “serious or violent,” and authorizes re-sentencing for offenders currently serving life sentences if their third strike conviction was not serious or violent, and if the judge determines that the re-sentence does not pose unreasonable risk to public safety.
However, the proposition maintains the current life-without-parole penalty for felons with non-serious, non-violent third strikes if prior convictions were for rape, murder, or child molestation.
At the same time, however, 52 percent of Californians narrowly rejected a referendum initiative (Proposition 34) which would have abolished the use of the death penalty in the state.
Chemerinsky blamed the defeat on an “aggressive” advertising campaign by opponents, adding that he expects death penalty opponents will continue to challenge California’s law.
Shift on Marijuana?
Meanwhile, the votes in support of marijuana use suggest a major shift in popular sentiment on cannabis, according to Mark A. R. Kleiman, noted criminal justice scholar and author of Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know.
“There’s been a huge change in public opinion and very little done legislatively,” Kleiman, told The Crime Report. “It looks as if at the moment, public opinion is winning out.”
Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana use, when voters approved Colorado’s Amendment 64 and Washington’s Initiative 502.