With a rapidity that has taken many political leaders by surprise, Proposition 66, a proposal to significantly scale back California's three-strikes law, has become the focus of the hottest fight on the state's long, complex ballot.
Polls by The Times and the Field organization in the last two weeks showed the measure winning with more than 60% of the vote. Now, with money from Henry T. Nicholas III, the founder of Broadcom Corp. and one of the state's richest men, opponents of Proposition 66 are staging a furious last-minute effort to preserve the current three-strikes law.
On Thursday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and three of his predecessors -- Democrats Gray Davis and Jerry Brown and Republican Pete Wilson -- staged a rare joint appearance to denounce the ballot measure.
"Proposition 66 is nothing but a loophole for violent criminals, and it will lead to more crime and more victims in California," Schwarzenegger said, echoing the theme of television advertisements that feature the governor pointing to mug shots of criminals he says the proposition would release from prison.
Supporters of the proposition accuse Schwarzenegger of engaging in misleading "scare tactics." They note that the proposition allows current inmates to ask for a resentencing hearing, but does not automatically release anyone.
The two sides have tangled repeatedly over how many prisoners might be freed if Proposition 66 passes. In his ads, the governor says "26,000 dangerous criminals will be released from prison" -- a statement that exaggerates the proposition's effect.
Prosecutors say Proposition 66 would make 26,000 inmates eligible for hearings on new sentences. Supporters of the measure say only 4,200 would be eligible.
Legal experts say that until courts can rule on specific cases, that dispute cannot be resolved. But even if 26,000 were eligible, not all would be released. Even without the three-strikes sentence enhancement, some would still have years to serve, and others would expose themselves to new charges by asking for a hearing.
Proposition 66 backers have focused on cases in which people were given life sentences for relatively minor offenses. Currently a life sentence can be imposed for any felony conviction if a person has two previous convictions for felonies defined as serious or violent by the criminal code.
The number of people serving life sentences for petty theft under the three-strikes law has risen to more than 350, and nearly 700 are in for life for possessing small quantities of drugs, state figures show. But some -- although not all -- of those inmates had previous convictions for assaults, rapes or other violent crimes.
Proposition 66 would allow life sentences to be handed out only for third-strike crimes that were serious or violent. The proposition would also remove eight crimes from the list of serious and violent felonies, while increasing the penalties for some crimes against children.
Schwarzenegger and other opponents of the initiative conceded this week that they may have intervened too late to defeat the measure. In these closing days before the election, their campaign advertising must compete for attention with a slew of messages on other propositions, as well as coverage of the tense presidential race.
"I should have put the money in a long time ago," said Nicholas, the Orange County billionaire who gave $1.5 million this week and has pledged to "give as much as necessary" to defeat Proposition 66.
The way that support for the measure caught at least some opponents by surprise underscores how rapidly the politics of crime has shifted in California, political experts say.
In 1994, when voters overwhelmingly passed three strikes, the murder rate was near an all-time high. Political and legal aftershocks of the 1992 Los Angeles riots were being felt. And one sensational homicide or rape or home-invasion robbery seemed to follow another, until many in the state felt terrorized.
The early 1990s "was the angriest and most fearful period," said UC Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring, author of a book critical of the three-strikes law. "Part of what separates now from then was how weird then was."
Concern about crime reached a peak after 12-year-old Polly Klaas was abducted from her home in Petaluma by a man who had been in and out of prison much of his life. Eleven months after searchers found her body, voters approved the sentencing law -- the toughest in the nation.
Even as those three-strikes laws were passing here and elsewhere, however, crime was beginning to drop.
In the last decade, crime rates have plummeted nationwide. Violent crime reached a 30-year low in 2002, according to the Department of Justice.
In California, crime rates are down nearly 45% statewide in the last decade. Homicides in Los Angeles reached a high of 1,094 in 1992. By last year they had dropped to 515.