Two weeks before election day, a ballot measure to substantially roll back the state's three-strikes sentencing law is leading by almost 3 to 1 among likely voters, while some other high-profile measures remain locked in close contests, according to a new Times poll.
Enough California voters remain undecided on several health-related measures to sway the outcome in either direction -- making the final days crucial for opposing sides.
A proposal to sell $3 billion in state bonds to pay for embryonic stem cell research appeared ahead, with a slight majority planning to vote for it. Also leading was a ballot referendum that would require many companies to provide health insurance to their workers, although a quarter of likely voters were still undecided. A proposal to tax millionaires to pay for mental health services is also leading.
But voters are almost evenly split on a plan for a telephone surcharge to pay for emergency services.
As they grapple with the complex menu of 16 initiatives -- one of the longest ballots in California history -- the magnitude of the choices they are being asked to make weighs on some voters.
"A lot of the issues are things we don't deal with on a daily basis," said Jane Lybecker, 42, a computer systems teacher from Petaluma who agreed to a follow-up interview. "We don't know what these issues are being weighed against. Where could that money be going if we don't spend it on this? I try to read the voter guide and educate myself, but so many times you don't know what the whole story is."
The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 1,345 registered voters, of whom 925 were considered likely to vote in November. It was conducted statewide Oct. 14 to 18. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The measure to change the state's tough "three strikes" sentencing law was backed by 62% of likely voters in the survey and opposed by 21%, with 17% undecided.
The degree of support for the measure has startled many political experts. Just a decade ago, voters approved the three-strikes law with 74% support. At that time, concern about crime was high, and the highly publicized kidnapping and murder of a 12-year-old girl, Polly Klaas, helped generate support for tougher measures.
But most Californians now appear ready to reconsider.
The current law allows sentences of 25 years to life for defendants convicted of a third felony -- regardless of its seriousness -- if they have two convictions on their record for serious or violent felonies.
The new statute would greatly scale back who can be sentenced under the three-strikes law. It would make several changes, including requiring that only serious or violent felonies trigger a life sentence.
The changes would cure what critics consider to be the current law's worst extreme: the imposition of sentences of 25 years to life for crimes such as shoplifting or check-kiting.
Thousands of inmates who have been convicted and sentenced under three strikes would be eligible to have their sentences changed, and many would be released early.
Support for the measure appeared to cut across ideological lines in the survey. Among people who described themselves as conservative, 50% said they would vote for the measure, compared with 33% saying they would vote against it.
The measure is opposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, the state's district attorneys and a wide range of law enforcement entities. Schwarzenegger sent a mailer last week to about 5 million California voters that included his opposition to Proposition 66, and he plans to begin public campaigning against the measure today.
So far, however, their arguments seem to have failed against a widespread voter sentiment that the current law locks too many people away at too high a cost.
"I think to do a crime and to be sequestered away for life as a result that it should be for something very serious," said Jubal Kohn, a 27-year-old film and TV producer in Hollywood.
Steve Corbin, a 52-year-old designer of model airplanes who lives near Lake Arrowhead, said he also planned to vote to change the law.
"If someone shoplifts and got 25 to life, what does that cost us?" Corbin said. "Seems to me we could take that money and invest it in some other way to help people out to make it less likely to have two-time felons running around."
"It's not really a good idea to put anyone in the position of having nothing to lose," he added. "That's where the highway patrolman walks up to the car and ends up shot."
On the other side, Katherine Garcia, a 50-year-old medical secretary from Visalia, said she liked the three-strikes law "exactly the way it is. I think it has put very dangerous criminals off the streets, and I think that's where they should be."