Update: Citizens voted to strike down California’s punitive and costly 3 strikes law in 2012. Proposition 36 passed!
Under the new reforms, third strike mandatory life sentences are only applicable when the third felony conviction is “serious or violent”, or if the defendant was previously convicted of murder, rape, or child molestation.
Three strikes and you’re out! This saying took on a whole new meaning within California in the 1990’s. It went from something you would only hear at a baseball game to terms used to describe criminal sentencing and essentially locking people up and throwing away the key. Passed in 1994 by the legislature and the people of California, the Three Strikes Law has done more to increase spending and controversy than it has to reduce crime.
In the 1990’s, the tough on crime era was in full swing. Following the highly publicized kidnapping and murder of 12 year old Polly Klaas by a violent parolee, lawmakers and citizens alike were prepared to prevent similar instances from ever happening again. Many of those pushing the Three Strikes agenda (AB 971/ Proposition 184) used the Klaas case to gain momentum.
Purpose of the Three Strikes Law
The purpose of the Three Strikes Law was to punish the most serious criminals and prevent them from committing further acts of serious crime. It was targeted at repeat offenders, being notoriously difficult to reform. By dramatically increasing sentences for multiple time offenders, the law was designed to:
- Remove the individual offenders from the communities, keeping them from committing further criminal acts, and
- Serve as a deterrent to other, would-be multiple-time offenders.
The version voted on by California citizens gained support by rallying against those “career criminals who rape women, molest children, and commit murder.” The bill passed by lawmakers, however, was much broader—applying the law to those offenses that were “violent or serious.”
How The Three Strikes Law Works
Designed to penalize repeat offenders, the changes made by Three Strikes targeted those with an existing felony conviction. Despite the moniker, Three Strikes laws also changed penalties for second strikes.
If you commit a felony and have an existing criminal record including at least one violent or serious felony, you may be sentenced under Three Strikes enhancements.
Second Strike- If you have a conviction for one serious or violent felony on your record, the sentence for any new felony conviction will be double what the statute for that offense calls for. (i.e. instead of serving a potential 4 years for felony assault, you could be sentenced to up to 8 years).
Third Strike- If you have two or more convictions on your record for serious or violent felonies, any new felony conviction can carry a life sentence, with a minimum 25 year term.
One major issue with the California Three Strikes Law is the fact that your second or third strike doesn’t have to be violent or serious, it only has to be a felony. This is precisely how people have been sentenced to life for offenses like stealing a VCR from Kmart.
Also changed within the Three Strikes Law is the issue of concurrent sentences. If a person is sentenced under Three Strikes for more than one charge, those sentences must be served consecutively, or back to back. For example, if your third strike comes as you commit two counts of felony theft, you will be sentenced to 50 years to life rather than 25 to life.
Under Three Strikes, it doesn’t matter how long ago your previous convictions are. It doesn’t matter if you are gainfully employed and have remained crime free for decades, that third felony could mean a life behind bars. You also won’t get the benefit of probation or a suspended sentence, because under this law, the sentence cannot be diverted or suspended and instead must be served behind the prison walls.
How the Three Strikes Law Is Applied
Since the Three Strikes Law was enacted, it has evolved. At its inception, it was applied firmly and with strict adherence to the original language. There was little discretion used and people were handed down extremely harsh sentences where they were not always warranted.
Now, the way it’s applied varies greatly across the state. From county to county you can see completely different outcomes in court given the same set of circumstances. There are several reasons for this—some good, some bad.
Prosecutors have the ability, as do judges to exercise discretion in such cases. Both can elect to dismiss prior felonies when considering a possible sentence under three strikes. For instance they may elect to not consider a felony conviction from thirty years ago if they feel it doesn’t have any weight on the current situation or if using it wouldn’t be in the “furtherance of justice”. (People v. Romero, 1996)
How this discretion is applied changes from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. While this discretion allows prosecutors and judges to exercise fairness in the application of this law, it also means that the county where you face charges can determine your fate. For example, if you face a qualifying charge in Kern County, you are 13 times more likely to be sentenced under Three Strikes than if you are facing the charges in San Francisco County. (LAO, 2005)
Effectiveness of California’s Three Strikes Law
Three Strikes was implemented to reduce crime. It was passed to make people feel safer. While people may feel safer knowing a petty thief is behind bars for the rest of their life, this feeling isn’t actual reality. The bottom-line is that Three Strikes has made little difference in public safety.
When comparing the counties where Three Strikes sentences are most readily doled out to where they are used in strict moderation, crime rates reflect little difference.
In Kern County, all third strikes are prosecuted by the book while San Francisco doesn’t prosecute those that include non violent or non serious felonies. Since the passage and implementation of the law, crime rates have fallen in both counties, 30% in Kern and 21% in San Francisco (FACTS). Given the budget for California Department of Corrections has grown from 5.4 million to 4.8 billion in the years since its passage, this 9 percentage point difference seems hardly worth it.
To put a face on the law, numerous people have been sentenced to life in prison or at the very least decades behind bars for what would normally carry less than a 10 year sentence. Gregory Taylor, a homeless man, was sentenced to 25 to life for stealing food from a church. With prior convictions that included a failed robbery attempt and a $10 theft, his is an extreme example of injustice under the law.
While Taylor was recently released by a California judge who ruled the sentence wasn’t within the “spirit” of the Three Strikes Law, there are others like him still behind bars and more to come in jurisdictions where the law is applied with a heavy hand.
There’s no question that strict sentences have a place within the criminal justice system. But like the Three Strikes Law intended, those sentences should be saved for the most dangerous. Spending $40,000 annually to incarcerate someone guilty of stealing less than $1,000 isn’t just illogical; it’s a perversion of justice.