The Latest | Southern California breaking news and trends

A ballot initiative that could reduce the number of lifers in California prisons qualified for November's elections

Some credit Three Strikes with helping overcrowd California's prisons with aging inmates.
Some credit Three Strikes with helping overcrowd California's prisons with aging inmates.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation / EPA

Come November, Californians will revisit one of the most controversial criminal laws of all time in the state: Three Strikes. California's Secretary of State Monday certified an initiative for the ballot that would ammend the law. 

Three Strikes came to being in 1994 (through a ballot initiative) and increased prison times for repeat offenders. Specifically, if a person already has one "strike" — meaning a serious or violent felony — getting convicted of any second felony (not necessarily a serious or violent felony) makes the offender eligible for twice the prison time. 

A third striker — someone with two serious or violent felony convictions whose convicted of any third felony — gets 25 years to life in prison.

In 2011, there were about 32,000 second strikers and 9,000 third strikers in California prisons. Some of those third strikers are in prison on serious felonies like rape and murder, but there are a number (and the data is not available as to exactly how many) who're serving life in prison for things like shoplifting and drug possession. 

If passed, the new iniative would tweak existing law, making it so that a third strike would have to be a serious or violent felony. It would also reduce the sentences for some third strikers currently serving life terms.

Last year, the Legislative Analyst's Office estimated the changes could save the state tens of millions of dollars in the short-run, with savings exceeding $100 million annually in the longrun. 

Since it was born as a ballot initiative, the only real way to change Three Strikes is through the initiative process. However, district attorneys in different counties have discretion over whether they ask crimes to be treated as strikes. Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, a well known critic of Three Strikes, has endorsed the measure.