At first glance, observers might conclude that California voters exhibited symptoms of schizophrenia on law and order issues this election season.
While they overwhelmingly approved Proposition 36, a measure that softens California's tough "three-strikes" law, they narrowly rejected Proposition 34, a fairly well-funded death penalty repeal initiative.
Upon closer examination, the two measures were fundamentally different, appealing to different constituencies for different reasons. Proposition 36 was not a full-out repeal of three strikes but a nuanced adjustment of a sentencing regime that proponents argued persuasively was just flat unfair. They successfully documented the extreme excesses of three strikes in California. It was not an urban myth, for instance, that under the state's three strikes law, pizza thieves are serving life sentences.
Also, the changes approved do not automatically free repeat offenders, but they ensure that petty criminals are no longer condemned to spend the rest of their lives in prison as a matter of law.
It certainly didn't hurt that the initiative had the backing of veteran Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, who helped draft it. The current Los Angeles police chief as well as a former one supported it as well. Remarkably, it won majorities in every county in the state, from conservative Kern, where it racked up a healthy 55 percent of the vote, to liberal San Francisco, where it garnered 84 percent approval.
Considered something of a third rail of California politics for so long political suicide for any elected official who dared to suggest softening it three-strikes reform proved to be widely popular.
Unlike Proposition 36's nuanced adjustment of three strikes, Proposition 34 sought an outright repeal of the death penalty. While supporters included many who were morally opposed to capital punishment, the campaign stressed other issues, primarily the high cost and the dysfunction of the death penalty in this state.
Voters in 40 of California's 52 counties rejected those arguments, defeating Proposition 34.
Predictably, repeal of the death penalty won majorities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Los Angeles, the state's most populous county, also approved the measure, but Yolo was the only inland county where Proposition 34 got more than 50 percent of the vote.
Capital punishment is a criminal justice issue, but it is one that cannot be divorced from emotion and hard-held personal beliefs. Supporters of the death penalty did not need to spend much energy countering arguments about the costs and unequal application of executions. They knew they could sway voters by painting Proposition 34 supporters as sympathizing with child murderers, torturers and cop killers, "the worst of the worst," despite the fact that a life sentence is an extremely harsh punishment.
Some supporters of Proposition 34 think they may have waited too long to get their key messages before voters. Many people who cast ballots against Proposition 34 did so before campaign ads aired stressing the number of innocent people mistakenly condemned to death and the high cost of capital punishment. Perhaps that would have made a difference, but probably not. California remains a strong supporter of capital punishment, although that support is gradually eroding because of generational change and a wider recognition of how challenging it will be to "fix" a broken system.
Overall, Californians appear open to modest reform on law and order issues . But they are not ready at least not yet to join 17 other states in ending the ultimate form of punishment.