Is California's costly tough-on-crime era over? That's perhaps too optimistic a conclusion to draw from Tuesday's election results. In passing Proposition 36, voters curbed some of the excesses of the state's three-strikes law, but they also rejected a measure to roll back the death penalty and adopted one — Proposition 35 — that broadens the sex offender registry and imposes new life terms for some human trafficking offenses. The state has ceased its relentless march down a road toward ever-tougher sanctions, ever-more-crowded prisons and ever-rising costs. It has not turned the corner, but it's peering around it, trying to get a sense of whether it's safe to proceed.
For the last two decades California voters have listened too often to their fear when going to the polls, so it's important to remember that in previous years, initiatives generally steered clear of crime and punishment. Voters adopted a host of prison construction bonds in the 1980s and approved a victim's bill of rights in 1982, but it wasn't until 1990's Proposition 115 that an initiative cut back severely on the procedural rights of criminal defendants. There followed a series of measures that fed on the cynical politics of crime. Voters expanded the range of offenses subject to the death penalty. In 1994, even after crime rates began their historic decline, voters adopted the three-strikes law. In 2000, they approved Proposition 21, a measure to revoke many of the state's landmark protections for juvenile offenders as young as 14. In 2006, they turned their attention to sex offenders with Jessica's Law, and in 2008, on the heels of a decade-long crime drop of 20%, they adopted a new victim's bill of rights and virtually eliminated parole for many offenders with Marsy's Law.