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How California’s Three Strikes Law Works?

How California’s Three Strikes Law Works?

How California’s Three Strikes Law Works?

California's Three Strikes and You're Out law, enacted on March 7, 1994, aimed to significantly heighten penalties for felony offenders, especially those with one or more prior convictions for severe and violent felonies, known as strike priors.

Felonies necessitate prison sentences as opposed to misdemeanors, which may result in jail time of up to a year. Whether facing charges related to petty theft with a prior, or more serious offenses like the possession of drugs combined with crimes such as kidnapping, robbery, rape, or murder, consulting with a skilled California criminal defense attorney becomes paramount in navigating the complexities of the legal landscape.

Any felony can fall under the Three Strikes law if a defendant has one or more violent felonies. If you face any felony charges, seek immediate representation from a defense attorney.

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The Three Strikes Sentencing Model: How the Three Strikes are Implemented for Sentencing

The Three Strikes and You're Out Law is designed to increase the prison sentence for a repeat offender. Each strike covers the following criteria:

  • Strike One covers offenders with no previous violent or serious felony convictions who commit a violent/serious felony. Offenders receive the prescribed sentence as the s.
  • Strike Two covers offenders with one prior violent or serious felony offense who, once again, commit any type of felony. They may receive a sentence twice the term that the state law mandates.
  • Strike Three involves offenders with two prior violent or serious felony convictions who commit another felony. These offenders may receive 25 years to life imprisonment.

Pros and Cons of the 3 Strikes Law

Pros of Three Strikes Sentencing Laws:

Deters Repeat Offending: The three strikes law instills harsh sentences to deter career criminals from continuing to commit felonies.

Better Public Safety: The legislation puts serial offenders in prison for a longer period to protect citizens from their reoffending.

Just Punishment: The law escalates prison terms for criminals who recommit felonies.

Proportional Sentencing: The law mandates severe 3rd strike penalties for violent and serious felonies.

Cons of Three Strikes Sentencing Laws:

Prison Overcrowding: An increase along these lines can flood the prison system with inmates serving lengthy mandatory minimums.

Fiscal Costs: It’s expensive to house large inmate populations for 25+ years.

Inconsistent Application: Some prisoners may get life sentences for petty third crimes vs serious crimes.

Impedes Rehabilitation: The law may imprison offenders well past peak crime years, reducing reform motivation.

Disproportionate Sentences: The law may tie a judge’s hands in enforcing sentences that involve special circumstances.

Most arguments align with public safety benefits vs costs and social justice issues.

How the Three Strikes Law Unfolded in California?

California’s Three Strikes Law

In the early 1990s, public concern over crime rates led lawmakers in several states to propose habitual offender laws. One such three-strikes bill in California failed in 1993. However, later that year, the brutal kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a repeat violent offender sparked outrage in California. This case renewed momentum behind efforts to enact a three-strikes bill that put repeat felons behind bars for longer and harsher sentences.

Legislative Efforts

In 1994, Republican Assemblyman Bill Jones introduced AB 971 to mandate prison sentences of 25 years to life for offenders convicted of any third felony after two prior serious or violent offenses.

The legislation faced initial opposition for being too broad in applying the third strike penalty to all felonies. Amendments were made to narrow qualifying third strikes before the Assembly passed the bill in January 1994. Governor Pete Wilson pledged his support, as did members of the law enforcement community.

Voters' Approval

In November 1994, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 184, a ballot initiative very similar to AB 971. With 72 percent voter approval, the law modified California's sentencing laws to enact one of the toughest three-strikes statutes in the U.S.


In March 1994, Bill Jones reintroduced a modified version of AB 971, containing language nearly identical to Prop 184. With bipartisan support, the Assembly and Senate passed this version of the legislation - signed into law months before Prop 184 officially took effect.

The shocking murder of Polly Klass galvanized public opinion behind a tougher repeat offender law - a law that legislators transformed into the passage of AB 971.

Examples of Serious Felonies or Strike Priors

Strike priors are defined under sections 667.5(c) and 1192.7(c) of California’s penal code. These crimes may include robbery, murder, most sex offenses, kidnapping, residential burglary, or any offense where the perpetrator used a weapon, even if it was not used to injure another person. Offenses that lead to bodily injuries, such as arson or crimes that involve an explosive device, are also considered severe felonies.

One Strike Prior

A defendant who is arrested for a new felony with one strike prior (or a second strike) is required to go to prison. They’re not sent to rehab or placed on probation, something that can be done when no priors are recorded.

When they have one strike prior, the offender is required to serve 80 percent of their sentence. This compares to non-strike offenders, who typically serve one-third or one-half of the imposed sentence based on good behavior or working while incarcerated.

Two or More Strike Priors

If a defendant has two or more strike priors (classified as a third strike), they are subject to a minimum 25-year to life prison sentence. The offender will not earn time off for good behavior or for working. After determining the allocated prison time, the defendant is eligible but not guaranteed parole.

Moreover, a prisoner who serves life without parole for murder has no chance for parole during their incarceration. Otherwise, life prisoners may be paroled through the Board of Prison Terms (BPT).

Governor-appointed BPT members tend to be conservative about paroling qualified life inmates.

Three Strikes Punishments - Exceptions

The court must state on the record and include, in the court minutes, the facts that it finds are justification for dismissing a prior. A decision to strike or dismiss a strike prior is appealable by the prosecution and reviewable by the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

How the Three Strike Law Came About?

California passed its strict three-strikes sentencing law in 1994 based on the belief that the fear of severe repeat offender penalties would deter crimes. The law mandates state prison terms of 25 years to life for those convicted of any new felony if they have two or more prior serious or violent felony convictions. By incapacitating career criminals, politicians hoped public safety would significantly improve.

Defenses Used in Strike Cases

Defense attorneys have several angles to defend three strikes cases or client interests despite this legislatively strict policy:

Vigorously contesting prior strike validity - Any evidentiary, procedural, or constitutional problems with previous convictions can nullify their viability for counting as strikes towards current charges.

Arguing strikes as cruel/unusual punishment if a minor third felony - Lengthy sentences grossly disproportionate to non-violent crimes may be unconstitutional via the Eighth Amendment.

Challenging strikes counting across state lines - Differences between states in classifying felonies as serious or violent may upend eligibility

Seeking relief under California’s Proposition 36 - A 2012 reform measure, California’s Proposition 36, challenges strike criteria, allowing resentencing post-conviction if a third felony is considered non-serious.

Common Crimes Often Considered in Three Strikes Sentencing

The offenses that most commonly trigger third strike sentencing under California's strict three strikes law include:

  • Drug crimes - Possession, distribution, transport, or manufacturing of illegal narcotics
  • Property crimes - Burglary, larceny, robbery, motor vehicle theft, arson, and shoplifting
  • Fraud/forgery - Identity theft, embezzlement, credit card fraud, and writing bad checks
  • Repeat DUIs
  • Battery/domestic violence - Assault or spouse/child/elder abuse

How a Criminal Defense Attorney Can Assist in Your Three Strikes Defense?

As noted, skilled defense attorneys employ various strategies when seeking to defend three-strike defendants facing these charges. They may use the following tactics to gain legal relief for their client.

  • Procedurally attack prior qualifying felony convictions to nullify strike eligibility
  • Argue 8th Amendment prohibitions against cruel & unusual punishment if the third felony is relatively minor
  • Challenge strikes counting across state lines under CA code section 667(d)(2)
  • Dispute previous out-of-state convictions as meeting CA strike offense equivalent definitions
  • Seek favorable plea deals to lesser non-strike counts through substantive evidentiary defenses
  • For non-violent third felonies, petition for resentencing under California Proposition 36 reforms
  • Prepare for trial asserting innocence on the third felony while contesting the legal validity of prior strikes

A combination of technical appeals, constitutional protections, and assertive courtroom advocacy provides avenues for defending against severe three-strike penalties.

More About Proposition 36

Proposition 36, the Three Strikes Reform Act, is a California ballot initiative that state voters passed in 2012. Here are some key details about Prop 36:

It significantly altered California's strict original Three Strikes sentencing law to be less harsh on non-violent repeat offenders.

Again, Prop 36 stipulates that a life sentence can only be imposed if the third felony conviction is defined as serious or violent.

If the third strike conviction is non-violent/non-serious, the defendant will receive 2x the standard sentence instead of 25 to life.

The measure also allows prisoners already serving life sentences under the original Three Strikes law to petition for resentencing if the third conviction was non-violent and non-serious.

Around 5,000 inmates have been resentenced per Proposition 36, providing major sentence reductions.

The reform was intended to restore proportionality and fairness by focusing on truly dangerous felons. It is also designed to save taxpayers the costs of locking up non-violent criminals for life while addressing prison overcrowding.

So, in essence, Proposition 36 significantly reformed California’s Three Strikes statute in 2012 - directing severe sentences towards violent career criminals versus minor repeat offenders. This has provided new avenues of defense for many offenders in California’s prison system.

While California’s three-strikes landscape poses immense hurdles, asserting a client’s fundamental rights provides a criminal defense attorney with a platform to potentially achieve charge reductions, exclusions of old convictions, fairer pleas, or proportionate sentencing despite seemingly draconian guidelines.

Judge’s Decisions Concerning Three Strikes

Under the three strikes law, sentencing judges only strike or dismiss a prior when it’s old, the new crime is minor, and the defendant's record is non-violent.

Therefore, it’s infrequent for a judge to dismiss a prior when a new crime is violent or serious. Although the court may strike or dismiss priors, California’s prison system still receives more drug offenders sentenced to second or third strikes than other types of offenders.

Plea Deals for Three Strike Offenses

Plea deals for third-strike offenders in California are made carefully on a case-by-case basis while balancing the law, precedent, and circumstances of a case.

If agreeing to a plea deal, prosecutors may dismiss one or more previous convictions for sentencing leniency. However, standards may vary by county, given California's decentralized system. Rural areas tend to apply three strikes more liberally, while urban centers like Los Angeles and San Francisco use it conservatively, requiring all felonies to be serious or violent.

Plea bargains enable meaningful sentence reductions for low-risk third strikers. While they must register at least one prior, dismissing the other priors avoids the mandated 25-to-life sentence.

Nevertheless, most deals require admitting guilt and serving additional prison time. And if defendants breach the agreed terms, withdrawn strikes get reinstated, causing longer incarcerations.

California's use of third-strike plea deals aims to balance proportional punishment with public safety imperatives, incapacitating truly dangerous repeat criminals. Defense attorneys negotiate based on the severity of the offense and an offender’s rehabilitation prospects.

As prison budgets mount, strategic plea bargaining is considered a way to alleviate overcrowding while upholding the rule of law. Deals for non-violent third strikers attempt to balance these factors amidst complex legal and social pressures and laws.

How an Attorney Can Plead Down Your Case?

Defense attorneys have a few options when trying to plead down three strikes cases in California - all meant to avoid mandatory 25-years-to-life sentences for their clients:

File Motions Challenging Prior Strikes

Attorneys can research prior felony convictions to find any past legal errors that notably affect a client’s case. If serious issues exist, like a lack of legal counsel or official misconduct, they can motion to overturn the strikes. This requires extensive work to prove the fundamental defects surrounding the case.

Taking this step makes things more proportionate to prior crimes. This is often done to avoid unusual and cruel punishment based on an offender’s Eighth Amendment rights.

Negotiate to Dismiss Prior Strikes

More commonly, criminal defense lawyers negotiate with prosecutors to withdraw one or more previous strikes to avoid the three strike sentence. This involves demonstrating mitigating factors about prior felonies or the current charge to persuade the DA not to apply full sentencing.

Argue Rehabilitation and Low Public Risk

The defense may present evidence that their client has reformed. Therefore, a defense attorney may show their client is attending a rehabilitation program, maintaining employment and housing stability, providing family support, or volunteering in the community. These activities can convince prosecutors that an offender presents minimal public safety threats if spared an enhanced sentence.

Highlight Mental Health/Addiction Issues

If mental illness or drug/alcohol dependency played a role in a defendant’s crimes, attorneys emphasize treatment needs over punishment. Proactively having clients enroll in counseling and programs shows a rehab commitment worthy of sentencing leniency.

Noting a Minor/Non-Violent Current Felony

The attorney may argue that an enhanced sentence is disproportionate and unjust if the third strike is non-serious or non-violent in nature compared to prior offenses. Stealing minor items or low-level drug possession often gets such charges pled down.

By researching strike defects and presenting mitigations, a criminal defense attorney can sometimes convince a prosecutor to reduce charges.

Contact a California Criminal Defense Attorney Today

Seek legal help if you’ve been charged with a second or third felony. Learn more about your rights under California’s Three Strikes Law by contacting a California criminal defense lawyer. Get a top-rated criminal defense law firm in California to help right away.

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