The Three Strikes Law in California
If you have been arrested and charged with a felony criminal offense in the State of California, it is imperative that you understand the potential ramifications of a conviction, including whether or not you will be impacted by California’s “Three Strikes” sentencing law.
When the original Three Strikes law was enacted, and for many years thereafter, it was considered the harshest of its kind in the country. Although the law was recently reformed, it can still add years to your sentence if you qualify under the law. Only an experienced California criminal defense attorney can evaluate your criminal history along with the charges you currently face and advise you whether or not you are at risk for Three Strikes sentencing; however, a basic understanding of the law and who it typically affects is a good place to start.
The Original Three Strikes Law
Judges have long taken into account a defendant’s previous criminal history, or lack thereof, when determining a sentence after conviction of criminal offense. In the 1990s, however, many states took that concept one step further by enacting “Three Strikes” sentencing laws. Although California was not the first state to enact a Three Strikes law, California’s version was by far the broadest, and by many accounts, the harshest. Passed in 1994, California’s Three Strikes legislation followed on the heels of the brutal murders of Kimber Reynolds and Polly Klass – both by recidivist offenders. The public was scared and saw Proposition 184 as the answer to their fears, voting Proposition 184 into law with a margin of almost three to one in favor of the law. Proposition 184 was touted as the way to “keep murderers, rapists, and child molesters behind bars, where they belong.” The law required an offender to be sentenced to twice the term otherwise provided for if convicted of a felony when the offender had a previous serious felony conviction. Conviction of a third felony after two previous strikes resulted in a sentence of 25 years to life. The problem, as lawmakers and voters alike eventually realized, was that the criteria for the third strike was far too broad, effectively sending people to prison for life for things such as stealing change out of a car or shoplifting videos.
The Reformation: Proposition 36
Although the original Three Strikes law did, indeed, get many serious, violent offenders off the street, it also sent many offenders to prison to serve lengthy sentences for non-violent offenses because of the way the original law was written. In fact, according to Stanford Law School’s “Stanford Three Strikes Project,” over half of all inmates sentenced under the original Three Strikes law were sentenced for non-violent offenses. Eventually, it became clear to the voting public that the original Three Strikes law was too broad. To remedy the situation, the “Three Strikes Reform Act,” commonly known as Proposition 36, was passed in 2012. Although Proposition 36 is complex, the end result is that in most cases an offender will not be subject to Three Strikes sentencing if the third felony is not a serious or violent offense. In addition, offenders who are currently serving a sentence under the original Three Strikes law may petition for a sentence reduction if they would not qualify for Three Strikes sentencing under the new law. Estimates place the number of offenders who may qualify for a sentence reduction as a result of the change in the Three Strikes law at over 3,000.
Prior Convictions: What Qualifies
Although Proposition 36 dramatically changed California’s Three Strikes law, the law still exists and can result is a lengthy prison sentence – up to and including a life sentence – to your sentence if you qualify under the new law. To be subject to Three Strikes sentencing you must have two prior “strikes” and currently be facing a potential third “strike.” A “strike” is a conviction for a “serious” or “violent” felony as defined in California Penal Code Section 1192.7(c). Most of the offenses included in the definition of “serious” or “violent” felonies are offenses you would expect to find including, but not limited to:
- Child molestation
- Assault with a deadly weapon
- Selling or furnishing a controlled substance to a minor
Along with providing specific offenses under the definition of “serious” or “violent” offenses, the law also includes several “catch all” definitions such as:
- any felony in which the defendant personally used a dangerous or deadly weapon
- any felony in which the defendant personally inflicts great bodily injury on any person
In addition, juvenile “sustained petitions,” the juvenile equivalent of a conviction, may qualify as a strike if you were 16 years of age or older and several other conditions are met. Out of state convictions may also qualify as a strike. Finally, you can rack up more than one “strike” from the same case. If you were convicted of more than one qualifying felony out of the same case you could have more than one strike against you.
Exceptions to the “Serious” or “Violent” Requirement
As a general rule, Proposition 36 made it a requirement that only serious or violent felony offenses count as a third “strike” for purposes of enhanced sentencing. There are, however, exceptions to that general rule, including, but not limited to offenses involving:
- The use or intended use of a firearm in the commission of the crime
- The sale or intended sale of certain controlled substances
- Many sex offenses
Three Strikes Sentencing: How It Works
Under the original Three Strikes law a third felony conviction, regardless of the nature of the offense, would trigger Three Strikes sentencing, meaning a 25 year to life sentence. Post-Proposition 36, the third felony must also count as a strike. In other words, you are only subject to Three Strikes sentencing if you have two previous strikes (a serious or violent offense) and are convicted of a third strike. If your current charges do not include a serious or violent felony you will not face a 25 year to life sentence; however, you do still face a harsher sentence for conviction of a third felony offense even if it is not a serious or violent felony. Conviction of a non-serious or non-violent third felony subjects you to a sentence twice as long as you would otherwise receive.
The good news is that Three Strikes sentencing is not automatic. Prosecutors and judges have the discretion to dismiss or “strike” allegations that a defendant is subject to Three Strike sentencing. In addition, eligibility for Three Strikes sentencing must be proven by the prosecuting attorney, leaving a defendant with the ability to fight a Three Strikes sentence.
Defendants are frequently unaware of the future impact a conviction may have when they accept a plea agreement in a case. If you are currently charged with a felony offense of any kind it is crucial that you consult with an experienced California criminal defense attorney immediately. Even if you are not currently eligible for Three Strikes sentencing you could set yourself up for a Three Strikes sentence down the road by accepting a plea agreement now.
More About the Three Strikes Law in California
For more information about the Three Strikes Law in California, the following related resources are available for your review:
- California’s Three Strikes Sentencing Law (California Courts)
- Stanford Three Strikes Project (Stanford Law School)
Because of the individual nature of a sentence, it is always best to consult with a criminal defense attorney. If you have specific questions about your sentence, however, a general overview of common probation and sentencing terms and conditions may also be useful to you.