Three Strikes Basics
California’s “Three Strikes and You’re Out” Law was passed by both the California state legislature and the people of California through a voter initiative in 1994. California was one of the first states to pass such a sentencing scheme, which is now viewed as the harshest (non-capital) sentencing law in the United States. According to official ballot materials promoting the law, the Three Strikes scheme was intended to “keep murders, rapists, and child molesters behind bars, where they belong.” However, today, more than half of inmates sentenced under the law are serving sentences for nonviolent crime. The Three Strikes Project exclusively represents these individuals.
The main feature of the Three Strikes law is the imposition of a life sentence for any felony conviction, no matter how minor, if the defendant has two prior “serious” felony convictions. “Serious” felonies are defined by the California Penal Code and range from murder and rape to non-confrontational residential burglary and purse-snatching. A third strike offense can be any felony, including simple drug possession or petty theft. (The Three Strikes law also has a “second strike” provision, which doubles the sentence for any felony conviction if the defendant has one prior serious felony conviction.)
The law has had an undeniable effect on California’s prison system. In total, over 25 percent of California’s entire prison population are serving enhanced sentences under the Three Strikes law. Statistics from the California Department of Corrections demonstrates that the law disproportionately affects minority populations. Over 45 percent of inmates serving life sentences under the Three Strikes law are African American. California’s State Auditor estimates that the Three Strikes law adds over $19 billion to the state’s prison budget. California’s non-partisan has concluded that there is no evidence that the law contributed to California’s decreasing crime rate.
The Project has litigated various aspects of the administration of the Three Strikes law in state and federal court. Among other claims, the Project has successfully argued that our clients were denied effective representation of counsel, in violation of the Sixth Amendment; and that our clients’ sentences constitute cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.