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Change Likely for Calif. "Three-strikes" Law; Voters Split on Death Penalty

2 out of 3 voters would limit life sentences to "serious or violent' third-strike offenders.

Contact: Suzanne Wu at or (213) 740-0252; Michelle Salzman at or (213) 821-9311.

September 30, 2012 — California voters are overwhelmingly in favor of revising the state’s “three-strikes” law, according to the latest results from the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll.

Two-thirds of voters, including 67 percent of voters who vote on ballot initiatives, said they support Proposition 36, which would change the “three-strikes” law in California so that 25 year to life sentences are imposed only when the third felony is “serious or violent.” Twenty percent of voters oppose Prop. 36.

Men were more likely than women to oppose revising “three-strikes,” with 24 percent of men opposed to Prop. 36, and 65 percent supporting the measure. Among women, 15 percent oppose the measure, and 69 percent support it.

Across party lines, a majority of voters were in favor of revising “three-strikes” in California: Prop. 36 is favored 70-18 among Democratic voters; 55-27 among Republican voters; and 70-16 among voters with no party preference.

"The ongoing debate over prison overcrowding appears to have impacted public opinion on this issue," said Dan Schnur, Director of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll and Director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "Californians are looking for ways to  save money and imposing shorter sentences on non-violent offenders appears to be a reasonable way to reduce prison costs. The challenge for the initiative's opponents is to convince voters that prisoners who have previously committed violent crimes are still dangerous, but that looks like an uphill fight at this point."

California voters were equally in favor of revising “three-strikes” whether or not they were read a statement explaining the fiscal impact and estimated $70 million in state saving related to prison and parole operations: 66 percent of who were read a fiscal impact statement were in favor of Prop. 36, and 20 percent oppose it.

Latino voters were less likely than voters overall – and nearly ten percentage points less likely than White voters — to support Prop. 36, with 59 percent of Latino voters in favor of revising three-strikes and 27 percent opposed. Among White voters, 69 percent support the measure and 18 percent oppose it. Among Black voters, 73 percent favor revising “three-strikes” and 18 percent oppose it.


Voters were much more split on the other criminal justice initiative on the November ballot, Prop. 34, which would repeal the death penalty in California and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The measure would apply retroactively to people already on death row.

"Opinions on the death penalty are fairly locked in,” said Dave Kanevsky, Research Director of Republican polling firm American Viewpoint, which conducted the poll on behalf of USC and the Los Angeles Times with Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. “If this initiative is tied, it’s likely to lose as undecideds generally break to the “No” side and the fiscal argument does not move Republicans on the death penalty, as it moves voters on other initiatives.”

When read a brief statement about the proposition, 51 percent of voters oppose banning the death penalty and 38 percent support it.

But the actual ballot wording of Prop. 34 narrowed the gap between the positions: When read the ballot language, 45 percent of voters oppose repealing the death penalty and 43 percent support it. The ballot language explains that people found guilty of murder must work while in prison, “with their wages applied to victim restitution fines.”

Voter opinion on Prop. 34 was virtually unchanged when voters were read a further statement explaining the fiscal impact related to trials and appeals that costs the state about $100 million annually. With a statement explaining the fiscal impact of repealing the death penalty, 44 percent of voters support Prop. 34, and 46 percent oppose it.

“We may have reached a limit on the fiscal argument for the death penalty,” said Stan Greenberg, CEO of Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. “We’re moving toward a values argument and making people work and make further restitution to the victim's family.”

The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll was conducted from Sept. 17-23, 2012, by Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and Republican polling firm American Viewpoint. The full sample of 1,504 registered voters has a margin of error of +/- 2.9 percentage points.

Additional poll results and methodology are available at

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TWITTER: @usclatpoll

About the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times Poll: The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll is a series of statewide public opinion polls in California, designed to survey voter attitudes on a wide range of political, policy, social and cultural issues.

Conducted at regular intervals throughout the year, the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll is one of the largest polls of registered voters in the state and has been widely cited, helping to inform the public and to encourage discourse on key political and policy issues.

About USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences: USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences is the heart of the university. The largest, oldest and most diverse of USC's 19 schools, USC Dornsife is composed of more than 30 academic departments and dozens of research centers and institutes. USC Dornsife is home to approximately 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students and more than 750 faculty members with expertise across the humanities, social sciences and sciences.

About the Los Angeles Times: The Los Angeles Times is the largest metropolitan daily newspaper in the country, with a daily readership of 2 million and 3 million on Sunday, and a combined print and interactive local weekly audience of 4.5 million. The fast-growing draws over 10 million unique visitors monthly.