The Three Strikes Law After Proposition 36

The Three Strikes Law After Proposition 36

April 12, 2013 | Danielle Stewart, Communications Coordinator, NCCD

stewart_copy

“Three strikes and you’re out,” at its most basic level, is a reasonable-seeming corrective for antisocial behavior. Leave aside the question of efficacy in changing antisocial behavior and the concept of three strikes is really not so outlandish. Outside of baseball, the essence of three strikes is nested within all sorts of conventional institutions, beginning with the way we parent and the way we teach.

“Three strikes and you’re out,” at its most basic level, is a reasonable-seeming corrective for antisocial behavior. Leave aside the question of efficacy in changing antisocial behavior and the concept of three strikes is really not so outlandish. Outside of baseball, the essence of three strikes is nested within all sorts of conventional institutions, beginning with the way we parent and the way we teach.

In the early 1990s, “three strikes” crystalized into law on the west coast of the United States. The Three Strikes Law made mandatory a 25-year minimum prison sentence for repeat offenders after their third felony, violent or not, if their two previous strikes were serious felonies. For example, an individual convicted of petty theft (often charged as a felony) as a third strike would receive a sentence of at least 25 years in prison because it followed two more serious felonies—even though petty theft alone would only garner one year in prison. Before the advent of Three Strikes, judges considered a defendant’s criminal background when determining the severity of a sentence, but the new law took away the relativity of each defendant’s case and treated every third strike the same.

Because the law has resulted in longer sentences than typical, Three Strikes has been criticized by its opponents for leading to excessive sentencing and overcrowded prisons. Since California adopted the law in 1994, three major amendments have captured the controversial nature of the law. In 2000, Proposition 36 was passed and modified California’s Three Strikes Law so that offenders could opt for drug treatment instead of a life sentence for crimes related to drug possession. In 2011, Assembly Bill No. 109 was passed, which relaxed the law, making some third strikers eligible for rehabilitation programs in lieu of prison time. The last amendment to Three Strikes, Proposition 36, passed in November 2012, revising the sentencing procedures for third strikers.

An essential part of the latest Proposition 36 is the opportunity to request a resentence for inmates currently serving life sentences for nonviolent third strikes. When Proposition 36 passed, approximately 3,000 prisoners were serving a life sentence for a nonviolent third strike under the Three Strikes Law. Now, thanks to California voters, these prisoners can ask judges to re-examine their cases in hopes of new sentences. Just one day after the proposition passed, judges in California were already receiving requests for Three Strikes hearings.

In December 2012, the Bay Area held its first Three Strikes hearing for Manuel Pena, a man who had spent the last 18 years in prison on a life sentence even though his third strike was merely petty theft—shoplifting a pair of shoes and a wallet from a Montgomery Ward store. While his first two strikes were armed robberies, Pena had already served time for them. On December 18, 2012, Contra Costa County Judge Clare Maier ruled in favor of Pena’s release on the principle that his third strike was nonviolent and undeserving of a life sentence. Due to the revised law, and prosecutors working for these inmates, people like Pena will not spend their lives in prison.

Danielle Stewart is the Communications Coordinator at NCCD.