California’s three strikes law, introduced in 1994, was until the recent fiscal crisis popular with voters. But news over the past few years that the state was spending more on incarcerating its voters than educating them led to a reconsideration of the legislation. Now the state has passed ‘Proposition 36’, requiring a defendant’s ‘third-strike’ offence to be serious or violent (not previously a requirement) before the courts can impose the 25 years – life prison sentence. This is likely to reduce the costs of mass incarceration (thus satisfying the majority of voters who have felt the pinch) and to reduce prison overcrowding and prevent disproportionate sentences for minor crimes (satisfying the liberals who have just put Obama back in the White House).

Meanwhile Proposition 34, which gives California’s voters the chance to abolish capital punishment, is being voted on. The polls suggest it might be successful. California has executed just 13 of its over 800 people sentenced to death since the state voted in the death penalty in 1978, although a further 84 inmates have died in intolerable conditions on death row. As in other US states, the death penalty in California is arbitrary and discriminatory, but if California does abolish it it will be because the voters were swayed by the astronomical costs, rather that for principled reasons. Still, these Propositions suggest that in a recession, all is not bad news.