What Is The Three Strikes Law?

In baseball, “three strikes and you’re out” is a common phrase. It lets players know that that the third strike is their last chance to hit the ball. Players who fail to get a hit on their third try are sent back to the dugout and, in some cases, this means game over.

The Three Strikes Law has a similar but much grimmer meaning for habitual felons in California. 

Essentially, the Three Strikes Law is a set of sentencing guidelines for felony convictions. Its purpose is to deter individuals with prior serious felonies from committing any further felonies.

The original law achieved this by having severe penalties for the third felony, with a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

The law wasn’t without its critics. They argued that the law was too severe. Particularly, that non-violent felonies shouldn’t count as a third strike as these crimes don’t warrant the possibility of receiving life in prison without the chance for parole.

Since its enactment in 1994, the law has been relaxed, especially in regard to third-time felons. But, the sentencing guidelines are still strict.

History Of The Three Strikes Law

The original Three Strikes Law gave harsh sentencing guidelines to habitual felony offenders. The first serious felony conviction was the first strike on their record. On the first strike, the individual was sentenced normally. 

The Three Strikes Law starts making changes to regular sentencing guidelines at the second felony. If the felon was convicted of a serious felony for the second time, the amount of time they spent in jail was doubled. This was the second strike on their record.

After the second conviction for a serious felony (the second strike) a subsequent conviction for any felony–whether serious or not–was the third strike on their record. This meant that even non-violent felonies counted as a third strike. Under the Three Strikes Law sentencing guidelines, the mandatory penalty for the third felony was 25 years to life in prison without parole.

In 2012, Proposition 36 was passed. It made two substantial changes to the Three Strikes Law sentencing guidelines:

  1. If a third-time felon was currently serving 25 years-to-life as a mandatory sentence under the old law, the new law allows them to petition the court to be re-sentenced under the new second-strike guidelines if they are eligible; and
  2. Instead of any felony counting as a third strike, now the third strike sentencing would only be triggered if that felony was a serious felony.

Proposition 36 was a substantial step towards relaxing the Three Strikes Law sentencing guidelines. However, California law still gives harsh penalties to habitual felons and further changes are currently being considered. 

What Is The Difference Between A Felony And A Serious Felony?

The Three Strikes Law makes an important distinction between a felony and a serious felony. In California, a felony is broadly defined as any crime that carries a sentence of more than one year in jail or prison. This includes non-violent offenses, like drug charges.

A serious felony, on the other hand, has a much narrower definition. The term serious felony is reserved for the gravest crimes. Examples of a serious felony include:

  • Murder
  • Voluntary manslaughter
  • Rape
  • Arson
  • Kidnapping
  • Continuous sexual abuse of a child
  • Burglary
  • Carjacking
  • Any robbery

By distinguishing between a felony and a serious felony, Proposition 36 prevents individuals committed of two prior serious felonies from automatically serving 25 years to life in prison for a subsequent non-violent felony, such as the sale of a controlled substance.

How Can A Criminal Defense Attorney Help Me?

Although the Three Strikes Law has been revised, any felony conviction in California can have serious long-term consequences, including incarceration and monetary fines.

If you have a felony criminal record and are facing new charges, or if this is your first possible conviction, it’s important to seek legal help as soon as possible. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can help protect you from the Three Strikes Law, including negotiating plea bargains

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