What is California’s Three-Strike Law?
The California three-strike law is what legally is known as a sentencing enhancement statute for repeat criminal offenders. The California three-strike law garnered national and international attention for its severity when it initially was enacted in 1994.
The Original California Three-Strike Law
Beginning in 1994, and running through the passage of a California voter initiative called Proposition 36, the three-strike law in the Golden State required that a criminal defendant, with a prior conviction of a serious felony, to be sentenced to a term of incarceration of double the maximum permitted by law on the new charge. If a criminal defendant was convicted of a third felony, of any type, with two prior strikes, that individual faced a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life.
Modification of the California Three-Strike Law
After nearly 20 years on the books, California voters took matters into their own hands to modify what were perceived as the overly harsh sentencing results in some cases. In 2012, the voters in the state passed Proposition 36, which modified certain provisions of the California three-strike law.
As a result of Proposition 36, in order for a criminal defendant to be sentenced to 25 years to life on a third felony conviction, the prior two felony convictions have to be “serious or violent felonies.”
Proposition 36 also included a provision for offenders sentenced under the old three-strike law to return to court to seek a sentence modification consistent with the provisions of the modified law.
2014 Clarification of California Three-Strike Law
In July 2014, the California Supreme Court further clarified the reach of the three-strike law in that state. In some cases, judges were sentencing offenders under the three-strike law in situations in which two felony convictions were part and parcel of the same criminal act. In other words, if a defendant previously was convicted in one prior cases of felony robbery and carjacking, certain judges considered that sufficient to meet the standard of two prior serious or violent felonies.
In an unanimous ruling, the California Supreme Court ruled that a sentencing judge cannot consider multiple felonies stemming from the same criminal act as individual strikes for the purposes of the three-strike. Therefore, in a case like the one described involving a single prior conviction of crimes like felony robber and carjacking (stemming from the same criminal act), a person would be considered to have one and not two prior strikes.
In its opinion explaining its clarification of the three-strike law and prior convictions, the California Supreme Court used a clear baseball analogy to emphasis the reasoning behind its decision: “The voting public would reasonably have understood the three strikes baseball metaphor to mean that a person would have three chances — three swings of the bat, if you will — before the harshest penalty could be imposed. The public also would have understood that no one can be called for two strikes on just one swing.”
National Impact of California Three-Strike Law
In the aftermath of California initially enacting its three-strike law, other states enacted similar statutes. (Two states, Texas and Washington, enacted such laws prior to California.) As of 2014, 24 states maintain three-strike laws similar in their operation to the one in California (albeit with different levels of sentencing severity).
Photo by Brian Turner / CC BY
Bradley Corbett is a criminal defense attorney in San Diego. He graduated from Brigham Young University in Provo Utah in 2004. Later he enrolled at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego where he participated in a prestigious internship program with the Los Angeles County Public Defender. Since then he has handled over 2,000 cases.