KQED'S SCOTT SHAFER: Among the winners in Tuesday's election, a few thousand California inmates serving time under the state's Three Strikes Law. Voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 36 which requires the third strike to be a serious or violent felony. It's good news for inmates like Sajad Shakoor, who had two convictions for burglary when he was convicted of starting a fight, and is now serving 25 years to life at San Quentin Prison. Before the election, we asked what passage of Prop. 36 would mean to him.
SAJAD SHAKOOR: I would have to kneel down and show my appreciation that God has, at the end of the day, put it upon the hearts of the people to correct this injustice.
SHAFER: Reporter Michael Montgomery covers criminal justice issues, including Prop. 36, for California Watch and KQED, and he's here now. Michael, first of all, how many inmates like Sajad Shakoor are there, and how carefully were they following this election?
MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Well, there is about just under 4,000 to 3,500 inmates who were convicted under the Three Strikes Law, who are serving life terms but for nonviolent crimes -- nonviolent third strikes. However, how many of those will perhaps qualify for release or will be able to petition for sentence reduction is not clear. Under the proposition, under this new law, it is not automatic. It still will be up to the judge to look at the case and consider resentencing.
SHAFER: And is it a judge in the county where the crime was committed?
MONTGOMERY: It is indeed, and that will raise perhaps lots of issues, some of these are rural counties that still use the Three Strikes Law at full strength. So, there are a lot of battles ahead, but most legal experts who have looked at this say at a minimum, there will be hundreds of current inmates who will get out in the next six months to a year.
SHAFER: There wasn't really a very well-funded opposition to Prop. 36, but there were certainly people who didn't want to see it pass.
MONTGOMERY: Absolutely, I mean, in fact, most D.A.s in the state were opposed to the measure. And certainly there's Marc Klaas who was speaking out against the measure. It was his daughter Polly who was abducted, raped and murdered in 1993, and that sort of set in motion the whole movement, the whole three strikes movement in California and nationally, and it was something we asked Marc Klaas before the vote.
MARC KLAAS: The cost of releasing these guys, as we have seen even more recently through Gov. Brown's realignment program, where the so-called real nonviolent guys are getting back out onto the street to recommit to murder and to maim, is that we are going to bring a crime wave down upon this state that is just going to cost us immeasurably in bodies, in souls and in treasure.
SHAFER: Michael Montgomery, you hear that a lot about Prop. 36, Prop. 34, whatever any kind of reform measure we've had on the ballot before. How likely is something like that to happen, that we're going to see a real uptick in crime?
MONTGOMERY: The measure was written very carefully. There was previous effort to overhaul Three Strikes, it didn't pass. They wrote this document, this measure very carefully, and that's why they got the backing of Steve Cooley, national conservative figures like Grover Norquist. It is very cautious, and like we said, there maybe a few hundred or a couple thousand inmates who could get released, but these are people who have no violent crimes on their record.
SHAFER: There was a similar ballot measure I think in 2006 that failed. Is it fair to say that the backers of this one would have liked to go a little further that it did but they basically took what they thought they could get?
MONTGOMERY: Well, there was a coalition around this, and I think D.A.s, D.A.s like Cooley and George Gascon and Jeff Rosen, they're happy with the way it is. They want to continue to be able to use Three Strikes in a limited way focused on violent offenders. There are others, perhaps more liberal inmates' rights folks who feel that it doesn't go far enough. Perhaps it's a good first step but that it doesn't address the fundamental issue here which has packed the Californian prisons, which are extraordinary long sentences for crimes that sometimes aren't violent crimes, perhaps robbery and other crimes, and that this measure really doesn't get into that. We talked to one prominent inmate rights' attorney, Charles Carbone, about this question.
CHARLES CARBONE: It's still one of the most aggressive three strikes laws in the country. And so all that we are doing is curtailing it slightly. It doesn't really address the fundamental issue which is: Is it worth while to be so-called habitual offenders for the rest of their lives at great taxpayer expense? For those people, this three strikes reform, doesn't affect them at all.
SHAFER: And Michael Montgomery, what about people who are second strikers -- there are a lot of those, tens of thousands I believe, is this going to affect them at all?
MONTGOMERY: Well this is the other point, this is a provision in the original Three Strikes Law that isn't talked about much, but that is, a sort of penalty enhancement, a doubling of sentences for people convicted of their second felony. We've seen more than 30,000 people, that's about 20 percent of the prison population, in prison under this two-strikes element. And this measure has no impact on that; it does not address this question of two strikes.
SHAFER: And then finally Michael, Prop. 34 which would have eliminated the death penalty went down, narrowly, it was 47 to 53 percent, but clearly voters make a distinction between those who are on death row and the rest of the criminal population.
MONTGOMERY: Indeed. I think both in California and nationally, we're seeing a trend of voters willing to rethink tough sentences, long sentences for low-level crimes, particularly drug offences, but that trend does not really apply to, or at least this year, did not really apply to the question of capital punishment. And it did go down, although as you say, it was close.