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CA policy: Three Strikes Reform: What happened last time?

On the November 2, 2004 California ballot, Proposition 66 was designed to place limitations on California's "Three Strikes" law enacted in 1994.   In response to the increasing numbers of third-strikers serving 25-years-to-life for drug possession, the initiative intended to require that the third-strike conviction be for a violent or serious felony in order to apply an increased sentence. According to the Legislative Analyst's Office, Proposition 66 would have saved the state several hundred million dollars annually, primarily in the prison system.  In addition, a field poll showed that Californians were in overwhelming support of the proposition.

Several criminal justice policy groups supported Prop 66, including the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ).

Several correctional associations opposed Prop 66, including among others:

~ California Police Chiefs Association
~ California District Attorneys Association
~ National Tax Limitation Committee
~ California Sexual Assault Investigators Association
~ California State Sheriffs' Association
~ California Organization of Police & Sheriffs (COPS) to save Three Strikes

A review of expenditures on Prop 66 reveals that its supporters spent over $5 million while its opposition spent only $71,335 on the campaign.  Donors to the "Yes on 66" campaign included Jerry Keenan, who gave approximately $2.8 million, and George Soros, John Sperling and Peter Lewis, each contributing $500,000. 


How then was Prop 66 defeated?


According to the San Francisco Chronicle,


"A last-minute advertising blitz featuring Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger successfully shifted debate on the proposition from images of drug addicts and petty thieves serving unfairly harsh prison sentences to hardened criminals receiving get-out-of-jail-free passes, and the final count ended with 53 percent of voters opposed."


A quick look at the late expenditures affecting Prop 66 shows a break-down of spending by the opposition:


~ Between September 20 and October 15, 2004, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) Independent Expenditure Committee spent $138,324 on mailers, radio and television appearances, T-shirts, lawn signs, and door hangers.
~ In addition, Governor Schwarzenegger used a $3.5 million donation from broadcasting billionaire Henry Nicholas and other contributors including prison guards unions to run a  series of advertising campaigns in which he appeared.


This three-week campaign turned voter opinion in a quick and last-minute defeat.  The relationship between high ranking political officials, corporations, and corrections unions is highlighted in this powerful example of initiative politics.  An article by the Los Angeles Times explains the significance of the relationship between Governor Schwarzenegger, former governor Wilson, broadcasting tycoon Henry Nicholas, and prison guards unions. 


What really stands out about the defeat of Proposition 66 though, is not the money; but the strategy.  In an intensive three-week multimedia campaign spearheaded by a well recognized political figure and backed by corporate finance, large corrections unions like the CCPOA were able to create a total turnaround in California sentencing reform.  This bill did not fail due to early and consistent advocacy, or the amount of money that was invested in the campaign, or even what the research shows best promotes public safety.

"Richard Temple, a political consultant who ran the No on 66 campaign, noted that every campaign 'needs a good message, money and a good message carrier.'"


Rather, it seems in criminal justice policymaking, marketing is everything.

Keywords: Selena Teji, state policy, three strikes

Posted in Blog, Sentencing

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