California’s Three Strikes Law

California’s “Three Strikes Law”, one of the harshest sentencing laws in the country, decrees that certain repeat offenders can be sentenced to life in prison after their “third strike” even for nonviolent crimes such as petty theft. As of June 2010, there have been 32,479 second strikers and 8,647 third strikers apprehended in California’s state prisons for offenses ranging from violent offenses including murder and kidnapping to nonviolent offenses including receiving stolen property and possession of illicit drugs.

The three strikes law was enacted back in the 1990’s by both legislative and voter initiatives, but had been amended twice since then, once in 2000 and again in 2006 to add additional crimes to the list of “strike” offenses. The unintended consequence of this addition of crimes amended in the list have been abuse of the law revolving around the change in the definition of “serious” which has been used to include crimes of the nonviolent nature. Many of those who’ve reviewed the changes to this law have argued that these revisions have contradicted the primary objective behind the law.

The origin of this law was a direct response to the anger and panic following the tragic murders of Kimberly Reynolds, 18, in 1992 and Polly Klaas, 12, in 1993 by men with criminal records and was initially intended to stop violent repeat offenders.  The aftermath of the murders sparked strong support of a “3 Strikes” law until it had been made official when California’s Three Strikes act was formally signed into law on March 8, 1994.

Despite its preliminary importance in preventing violent crimes from being committed, there have been some flaws associated with the amending of the Three Strikes Law as aforementioned. Many of these misuses of the law which have drawn some attention to urge lawmakers to justifiably review and amend the current position of the Three Strikes Law include:

  • The “three strikes” is triggered by any felony and not just violent or serious felonies
  • Under this law, someone convicted of shoplifting can receive a longer sentence than someone convicted of murder
  • It violates the 8th Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment
  • It often involves discrepancy in who gets sentenced based on racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic bias
  • It hasn’t shown any real reduction in crime
  • It’s caused overcrowding in the already overcrowded California prison system
  • Millions of dollars in taxpayer money is being squandered by keeping nonviolent criminals in prison for the rest or their lives


This bill amends the three strikes law, subject to voter approval via the  November 2012 ballot, to require the current conviction be a serious or  violent felony in order to subject a third-striker to a life sentence.
1)  Major out-year GF savings from reduced incarceration – likely in the tens of millions of dollars depending on the number of sentences  reduced. Through September, 148 third-strikers had been committed to  state prison in 2011. Annualizing this figure, assuming 30% have a non-violent, non-serious third strike (based on the current percentage  of 8,813 third-strikers whose third strike was a non/non), requiring a  third strike offense to be violent or serious could reduce the lifer  population by about 60 inmates per year, and about 1,000 in 20 years, resulting in annual savings in the range of $15 million in 10 years,  increasing annually to about $50 million in 20 years.
2)  These savings would be offset to a minor degree, potentially in the low millions of dollars, by increased local post-supervision caseload  costs.
3)  Significant out-year GF savings, likely in the low millions of dollars,  from a decrease in the number of third-strikers supervised by state  parole, and in the number of state parole hearings.
4)  Significant out-year capital outlay savings to the extent prison construction is avoided. An inmate population reduction of 500 could result in construction cost avoidance in the range of $150 million.  Assuming 30-year debt, annual savings could be in the range of $10   million.

5)  Unknown, potentially significant state and local savings from reduced court costs and local jail time, as defendants facing third strike charges generally spend more time in local jails pending dispositions  that require more court time than non-strike charges.
6)  One-time GF costs of about $220,000 for ballot-related costs, based on  a cost of $55,000 per ballot page.



1) Rationale.   According to proponents, requiring life sentences for current offenses that are neither serious nor violent, is neither just  nor fiscally responsible.


The author states, “The original intent of Three Strikes was to protect the public from violent offenders by extending the sentences of violent  offenders. Current policy however, has gone beyond this intent by  extending the sentences of all third time felony offenders, not simply those for violent or serious felony offenders. Ultimately, this has led  to unfair sentencing as well as prison overcrowding. The solution is simple; amend Three Strikes so that the third strike must be a ‘serious’ or ‘violent’ felony. This will help California direct its resources toward the real threat to public safety.”

2) Proponents , including the defense bar and prison reform advocates, cite studies that indicate  three-strikes has not resulted in lower violent crime rates, but has resulted in a significant redirection of fiscal resources to state prisons. For example, proponents point to a 2011 research brief by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ)  (Striking Out:  California’s “Three Strikes And You’re Out” Law Has Not  Reduced Violent Crime. A 2011 Update), which concludes that any positive effects of longer terms on crime rates should be the greatest in counties where three strikes sentences are imposed most, yet,  there is no evidence this is the case.

3) Opposition . The CA District Attorneys Association contends the three  strikes law has been used carefully, appropriately, and effectively.   “The simple fact of the matter is that California’s Three Strikes law is working.  This statute, passed by overwhelming majorities in the Legislature in 1994 and approved by a wide margin by the electorate later that same year, has provided a powerful and effective tool to prosecutors and the courts to target habitual felons.  We have been able to remove from our communities recidivist criminals who have multiple prior convictions for serious and/or violent felonies, thus preventing them from further committing crimes, thereby increasing public safety.”

4)   Judicial Discretion authorizes a strike to be stricken. The CA Supreme Court held in People v. Superior Court of San Diego County (Romero,  1996) that for the purposes of three strikes, the court on its own  motion may strike a prior felony in the interests of justice. Also, a trial court has the discretion to deem an alternate felony/misdemeanor offense a misdemeanor.

5)  Current Law . Under three strikes, enacted by Prop 184 in 1994, and also by the Legislature the same year:

a)   A defendant with one strike who commits any felony must be  sentenced to twice the base term of the current felony.

 b)   A defendant with two or more strikes who commits any felony, must be sentenced to 25-years-to-life.

(As a practical matter, under AB 327, offenders with two violent or serious priors, whose current offense is a non-violent or non-serious  offense, would likely receive a minimum penalty of double the base term for the current offense.)

6)   The Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012 Initiative .  A proposed ballot measure for the November 2012 ballot is pending signature collection.  This initiative is similar to AB 327 as it reduces prison sentences from 25-to-life to twice the base terms – for specified third-strikers whose current offenses are neither serious nor violent felonies.  The initiative goes further than AB 327, however, with retroactive application, authorizing the resentencing of third-strikers serving life sentences for non-serious, non-violent felonies.

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