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Three Strikes You’re Out: A Comprehensive Overview Of California’s Three Strike Sentencing


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Over 30 years ago, the loss of two young lives shook a number of people in California and across the U.S. The impact of these terrible events, fueled by the people of California’s urge for justice, played a pivotal role in forming a law that has molded California’s justice system since the 90s. 

This blog aims to provide a comprehensive overview of California’s Three Strikes law, as well as delve into the historical roots, including the incidents that led to the enactment of the law. Should you face criminal conviction at any point, it’s essential to enlist the help of a seasoned criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. 

History Of The Law

In 1992, Kimber Reynolds (18 years old) was approached outside of a restaurant by men on a motorbike (both of which were repeat offenders) who attempted to take her purse.

“Then one of the men — without warning, literally, without provocation — pulled out a .357 Magnum, which is one of the most powerful handguns in the world, and placed it in her ear and pulled the trigger,” Reynolds says. “Executed her on the spot.” It may have sounded like an idle promise at the time, but I promised her that if I could do anything to prevent this from happening to other kids, I would do everything I could. And I’m still trying to keep that promise today.’ – Mike Reynolds.” (NPR, 2009)

Kimber died in the hospital 26 hours later.

Over a year later, Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old girl was abducted from her home. A nationwide search began and her body was found two months later in a wooded area. She died of strangulation. Richard Allen Davis (an ex-con with a history of alcohol/drug abuse who was also on parole for a previous kidnapping) was charged with first-degree murder with “four special circumstances” including robbery, burglary, kidnapping, and attempted lewd act on a child. All of which made him eligible for the death penalty.

These tragic murders are known to have prompted the enactment of the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law to “keep murderers, rapists, and child molesters behind bars, where they belong.”

Understanding The Law

The Three Strikes law was created to increase prison sentences of those convicted of a felony who’ve already committed and been convicted of a violent/serious felony. It makes it difficult for an offender to receive a punishment other than a prison sentence. State law lists the following as violent and serious offenses thus counting as a “strike”:

  • Residential burglary
  • Robbery
  • Kidnapping
  • Murder
  • Most sex offenses like rape and child molestation
  • Any offense in which a weapon was personally used whether or not anyone was injured
  • Any offense in which great bodily injury was inflicted
  • Arson
  • Crimes involving explosive devices
  • Or attempts to commit any of those offenses.

If someone is convicted of more than two of these crimes, the penalties they face become harsher. Penalties are doubled after a second offense, and a third offense results in 25 years to life in prison. Additionally, after a second offense, you’ll have to serve more than 80% of your sentence before you can be released on what is classified as good behavior. 

What If You’re Convicted Of A Third Offense But It Doesn’t Count As A Strike?

Not every offense is considered a strike. As previously mentioned, a strike is classified as a serious or violent crime. Therefore, if you’re convicted of a third offense that doesn’t fall under that category, you won’t receive a strike, but you will have to serve double the normal sentence of whatever crime was committed. 

Impact of Three Strikes Sentencing

After nearly a year of implementation, the Three Strikes law was found to have profound impacts at the local and state level. Below are some of the key findings:

  • Thousands of Cases Being Prosecuted:
    • Over 7,400 second- and third-strike cases filed statewide as of August 1994.
    • Over 5,000 cases filed by November 1994.
  • Fewer Guilty Pleas by Defendants:
    • Historic plea bargaining rates of over 90% for felony cases statewide.
    • Current data suggests a shift, with only about 14% of second-strike cases and 6% of third-strike cases disposed of through plea bargaining.
  • Significant Increase in Jury Trials:
    • Anticipation of a notable rise in jury trials due to a decline in plea bargaining in many jurisdictions.
  • Increase in Persons Held in County Jail Awaiting Trial:
    • Impact on county jail systems, with changes in bail practices for second- and third-strike offenders.
    • Higher bail amounts for second-strike offenders, leading to more individuals held in county jails.
    • Third-strike offenders, facing possible life imprisonment, are considered high-security inmates with increased supervision and housing costs.

Criticisms & Controversies

One of the negative impacts of the Three Strikes law is the amount of second and third-time offenders who were harshly punished, despite their second or third offense being for a lesser offense, like petty theft or possession of a controlled substance.

While the original intent behind this law was to keep second and third-time offenders in jail, Stanford University has found that more than half of inmates sentenced under the law are serving sentences for nonviolent crimes. Additionally, the Three Strikes law has had a disproportionate impact on minority populations and other vulnerable groups. 

In 2012, voters approved the Three Strikes Reform Act, commonly known as “Proposition 36,” in order to mitigate some of the harsh and unintentional consequences of the original sentencing law. Proposition 36 eliminates life sentences for non-serious, non-violent crimes. Moreover, it introduced a framework that enables inmates sentenced to life imprisonment for minor third-strike offenses to petition the court for a reduction in their sentence. This reform marked a significant step towards addressing the injustices associated with the original Three Strikes law.

How Strongest Defense Can Help You

Being charged with a crime can be a terrifying experience, especially in a state like California where criminal charges are taken very seriously. From the second you are arrested for a crime, it is imperative that you seek professional representation in order to reach the best possible outcome. At Strongest Defense, we are dedicated to helping you protect your future and keep your reputation intact. No matter what your charges are, we will stand up for your rights and advocate for your best interest. Don’t delay in enlisting our experienced criminal defense attorney. Call Strongest Defense today to schedule a free consultation and discover your options and next steps.