Ten years after voters overwhelmingly approved the state's tough three-strikes sentencing law, Californians seem poised to sharply scale it back and open the door for thousands of inmates to be released early.
How many thousands remains in dispute.
Supporters of the initiative, citing a judge's ruling and the state's nonpartisan legislative analyst, say about 4,000 inmates would be eligible to have their sentences reviewed. Prosecutors say criminal procedure experts tell them that 26,000 or more could leave prison early.
The ballot measure, Proposition 66, has been leading in several polls -- most recently a Times survey showing it ahead by nearly 3 to 1 -- despite opposition from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state's district attorneys.
Schwarzenegger on Wednesday stepped up the fight against the measure in an appearance at an Ontario hotel where opponents emphasized their claim that 26,000 prisoners would get out early under the new law.
"Because Proposition 66 is retroactive, thousands of convicted killers, rapists and other violent offenders would be released," the governor said, later hugging tearful crime victims who said they feared that the men who hurt them or their families would be released.
Outside the hotel meeting hall, supporters of the measure waited to counter the governor's statements and called the 26,000 figure cited by opponents "false."
They said the measure would correct what many critics see as the worst extreme of the current law -- cases in which people were put in prison for life for a relatively minor third crime.
Of the roughly two dozen states with three-strike laws on the books, California is the only one that allows lesser felonies to trigger life sentences.
Supporters of the proposition have publicized cases like that of Leandro Andrade, a drug addict and father of three who stole $153 worth of children's videotapes from Kmart and received a life sentence with no possibility of parole for 50 years. His sentence was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.
Under the current three-strikes law, a defendant convicted of a third felony can be sentenced to 25 years to life. Whether the third felony is serious or violent does not matter as long as the previous two convictions were for serious or violent felonies.
The 1994 law also raised punishment for "second-strikers" -- providing that the usual sentence be doubled and that at least 80% of the time be served before parole could be considered.
Backers of Proposition 66 say that Californians, who approved three strikes by 71% of the vote in 1994 after the kidnapping and slaying of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, never intended such long sentences for lesser felonies.
To eliminate cases like Andrade's, the proposition would make several changes in the law. It would require that only serious or violent felonies, as defined by the criminal code, be counted as strikes. In addition, eight crimes would be removed from the list of serious and violent felonies, including residential burglary of unoccupied homes and participating in felonies committed by a street gang.
If Proposition 66 passes, the changes would affect not only future defendants, but also inmates now serving time under the three-strikes law. The disagreement is over how many of the 35,000 inmates sentenced under three strikes -- about 21% of the state's prison population -- would qualify for new sentences.
The legislative analyst's office agrees with supporters of the ballot measure that roughly 4,000 inmates could be resentenced.
In August, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge chastised prosecutors and other opponents of Proposition 66 for what he called a "patently false" ballot argument stating that 26,000 felons would be released if the measure passed.
The only inmates eligible to request resentencing would be those serving life sentences for a nonserious, nonviolent felony, Judge Raymond Cadei said.
But his ruling is not the last word, and prosecutors say thousands of additional inmates, including many now in prison for second strikes, could demand review of their sentences.
Much of the disagreement over the numbers hinges on what opponents and some legal observers say is ambiguous language in the proposition. If the measure passed, legal scholars say, the final answer would not be known until the law was challenged.
"Undoubtedly it's going to play out in the courts," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a Duke University law professor and frequent critic of the current three-strikes law.
The issues surrounding the proposition "may have to be answered by the California Supreme Court," said Franklin Zimring, a professor of law at UC Berkeley.
The potential for extensive legal wrangling illustrates one of the problems with writing laws by initiative.
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who has strongly criticized the current law but opposes Proposition 66, said he believed state legislators had failed the public by not fixing three strikes themselves.