1-2-3 STRIKE MATTERS
California’s “three strikes and you’re out” law is no game. It’s one of the harshest sentencing schemes in the country and a law that can send people convicted of even nonviolent offenses to prison for life.
As of June 30, 2010, the California state prison population included 32,479 second strikers and 8,647 third strikers. Because “strike” sentences can be triggered by any felony conviction – even for a “wobbler” or nonviolent offense – strikers are serving lengthy and life sentences for convictions ranging from receiving stolen property to possession of a controlled substance to kidnapping to murder.
The three strikes law was enacted by both legislative and voter initiatives in the 1990′s. It was amended in 2000 and again in 2006 to add additional crimes to the list of qualifying “strike” offenses.
We discuss what crimes constitute strike offenses in Section 3 of this article.
Passed in the anger and panic that followed the tragic murders of 18-year old Kimber Reynolds and 12-year-old Polly Klaas by men with criminal records, the three strikes law was intended to stop violent recidivist offenders. But the data is far from clear as to whether the law even reduces crime.
The law is flawed in other respects, as well:
- Three strikes is triggered by any felony and not just violent or serious felonies.
- Three strikes can lead to gravely disproportionate and even absurd outcomes, like giving someone convicted of shoplifting a longer sentence than someone convicted of murder.
- Three strikes can operate in a way that violates the Eighth Amendment constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment.
- Three strikes disproportionately impacts minority defendants.
- Three strikes needlessly exacerbates the already overcrowded California prison system.
- Three strikes unnecessarily shifts to the taxpayers the cost of caring for aging offenders who pose no significant threat to the public.
- Three strikes has not led to a demonstrable reduction in crime.
- Three strikes leaves no realistic room for rehabilitation, redemption or hope.
According to the statute, the three strikes law is designed to “ensure longer prison sentences and greater punishment for those who commit a felony and have been previously convicted of serious and/or violent felony offenses.”
Contrary to what you might think when you hear the term “three strikes,” California’s law targets both “second” strikers as well as “third” strikers. It also implements other excessively punitive measures like eliminating the possibility of probation and limiting a striker inmate’s ability to earn custody credits.
Under California’s three strikes law, if a person is convicted of any felony, and has two or more “strike” priors (prior convictions for strike offenses), he or she must be sentenced to at least 25-years-to-life in state prison.
As we discuss in our related article, Strategies for Fighting a Three Strikes Case, one way to tackle a “strike” case is by fighting the current charge. If our California Three Strikes Defense Lawyers can get a felony charge dismissed or reduced to a misdemeanor – or secure an acquittal at trial – we can help our client avoid application of the dreaded law in the first place.
On the same note, it’s important to fight any charge that could result in conviction for a serious or violent felony. Those convictions can counts as strikes in the future and thus lead to dire consequences down the road.
If a person is convicted of any felony and has one “strike” prior, that person must be sentenced to double the prison term on the current conviction.
Example: Angel is on trial for robbery. If convicted under ordinary circumstances, he faces a sentence of three, six, or nine years in state prison. But Angel has a criminal record. His priors include arson and making criminal threats.
Because his prior offenses constitute violent or serious felonies under the Penal Code, they qualify as “strike” priors. This means that if Angel is convicted of robbery, he faces a “third strike” sentence of life in prison. If one of Angel’s strike priors is dismissed, or if the prosecutor can’t prove one of the strike allegations, he faces a “second strike” sentence of up to 18 years in prison.
California prison inmates earn “custody credits” for time served with good behavior. Because of these credits, an inmate normally serves only 50% of the sentence. But the three strikes law limits this privilege.
A second striker must complete at least 80% of his or her sentence before being eligible for release (and 85% of the sentence if the inmate is convicted of a violent felony).
Third strikers do not receive any custody credits.
As if the second and third strike sentencing enhancements were not punishment enough, the three strikes law also:
- Mandates that strike sentences for different counts tried in the same proceeding be served consecutively, without aggregate term limits, so long as the counts were not committed on the same occasion or arise from the same set of operative facts.
- Eliminates striker eligibility for probation.
- Requires strikers to serve their time in prison as opposed to a rehabilitation-oriented facility.
Example: Jimmy, who has a criminal record, steals a bottle of brandy from a neighborhood store. As security personnel pursue him, Jimmy runs across a vacant lot and into Elizabeth’s backyard. In his panic, Jimmy strikes Elizabeth with the brandy bottle. He is convicted of petty theft with a prior and assault with a deadly weapon.
The judge decides that the theft and assault were committed on separate occasions. Therefore, because it’s a three strikes case, Jimmy is given two consecutive life sentences. He is not eligible for probation and he must serve his time in prison as opposed to an alternative facility.