Impact Of Three Strike Laws On Crime In California

By James

California legislators and voters approved a major change in the state’s criminal sentencing law in 1994 known as Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. In this act a statute known as the Three Strikes statute was introduced. It requires a minimum sentence of 25 years to life for third time repeat offenders with multiple prior serious or violent felony convictions. California Legislature and voters passed the Three Strikes law after several high profile murders committed by ex-felons raised concern about violent offenders being released only to commit new more violent crimes. The primary goal of this law is to implement a tough policy on crime and eliminate recidivism.

Numerous states all over the country have implemented three strike laws and California has one of the most severe three strikes penalties in the country. Common Offenses that are associated with the 3 strikes law are:

  • Kidnapping
  • Rape
  • Robbery
  • Burglary
  • Terrorist threats
  • Voluntary manslaughter
  • Attempted murder
  • Murder
  • Sexual abuse of a child under 14
  • Certain drug-related crimes

It is a fact that repeat offenders are the most difficult criminal offenders for any state criminal justice system to manage. Such offenders are generally unresponsive to incarceration as a means of behavior modification and are not deterred by the prospect of being incarcerated. It is due to this reason that longer sentences for repeat offenders appeal strongly to both policy makers and public alike. Proponents of Prop 184 pose the argument that imposing lengthy sentences on repeat offenders reduces crimes in two ways. The purpose of enhanced sentences is to eradicate repeat felons from society for longer periods of time which restricts their ability to commit further crimes. Secondly, the threat of long sentences often discourages offenders from committing new crimes.

Salient Features Of The Three Strikes Law In California

The major impact that the Three Strikes law created entailed longer prison sentences for certain repeat offenders, as well as other changes in sentencing requirements. The most significant aspect is that it requires a person convicted of a felony who has been a previous conviction of one or more serious felonies receives a sentence enhancement. Some of the major changes instituted by the Three Strikes law are as follows:

Second Strike Offense.

For a person having a previous serious felony conviction a sentence for a new felony conviction is twice the term required under state law for a conviction on a first offense. People sentenced under this provision by the court are referred to as second strikers.

Third Strike Offense.

For a person having two or more previous serious felony convictions, a sentence for a new felony conviction is life imprisonment with the minimum term being 25 years. People sentenced under this provision are referred to as third strikers.

Consecutive Sentencing.

The Three Strikes Law requires consecutive instead of concurrent sentencing for repeat offenders. For example, a repeat offender convicted of two third strike offenses may receive a minimum term of 50 years to life.

Unlimited Aggregate Term.

The Three Strikes Law requires that there is no limit to the number of felonies included in a consecutive sentence. This means that sentences are stacked on top of each other.

No Lookback Period For Prior Offenses

There is no lookback period in terms of prior offense for repeat offenders of serious or violent felonies. This basically means that the length of time between the previous and new felony conviction does not impact the new sentence in anyway. Serious felony offenses committed many years prior to a new offense can be counted as a previous strike.

There Is No Probation, Suspension, or Diversion For Repeat Serious Felony Offenders.

The Three Strikes Law prohibits any form of probation for the new felony as well as the suspension of any sentence for any prior offense. A striker has to be incarcerated in state prison and is not eligible for any diversion program.

Wide Range Of Prosecutorial Discretion

The prosecutor has the ability to submit a motion to dismiss, or strike prior felonies from consideration during sentencing if it serves the best interests of the furtherance of justice.

Good Time Served Credits Are Limited

Offenders subject to the Three Strikes Law cannot reduce their time spent in prison by more than one-fifth instead of the usual one-half by earning credits from work or education activities.

However, having such strict laws in place it often happens that individuals that commit relatively minor crimes although they have a criminal history may be subject to extremely harsh punishment meted out under the auspices of the Three Strikes Law. A person that is arrested and is facing a third strike is potentially facing incarceration for the rest of their natural life. There have been a number of legal challenges to the provisions of the Three Strikes law since it’s enactment in 1994. The most significant attack came in the guise of a challenge to the constitutionality of this particular statute. The Three Strikes law has made it possible for a repeat offender to receive a prison sentence of 25 years to life for a non-serious or nonviolent felony and this raises the issue of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Opponents of the Three Strikes Law fervently argue that this statute violates the proportionality rule in sentencing meaning that the prison time imposed grossly outweighs the crime because a minor crime committed by a repeat offender could result in harsher punishment than for violent crimes committed by a first-time offenders. The Three Strikes law also grants prosecutorial or executive, discretion and limits judicial discretion in sentencing. This raises constitutional issues about separation of powers.

Although certain court rulings have limited the law to an extent rulings from other courts have upheld the majority of provisions in this law. Regarding the aspect of cruel and unusual punishment, the U.S. Supreme Court in Ewing v. California ruled that it is constitutional to sentence a repeat offender to an indeterminate life sentence for the commission of a non-serious felony.  In another case, the state Supreme Court ruled that Three Strikes did not eliminate judicial discretion to dismiss prior serious or violent felony convictions. Other major issues pertaining to the implementation of this statute have also been resolved through the courts.

Major legal issues that the opponents of this particular law had raised have all been addressed by the courts. These legal verdicts have had a significant impact on the implementation of the Three Strikes law. If you find yourself in a situation where you might be facing a Three Strikes situation it is imperative to contact a qualified and competent criminal defense attorney to protect your rights and freedom.