the Three Strikes Law in California
The Three Strikes Law is one of the best-known sections of California’s legal code. While most people know that those convicted of three “strikes” face life imprisonment, most people don’t understand the technicalities of the law. For example, including which crimes fall under the law, the sentencing enhancements those facing a second strike are subject to, and how you can fight the mandatory sentencing enhancements in court.
What is the Three Strikes Law?
To put it simply, the three strikes law (sometimes written as the “3 strikes law”) is a piece of California legislation requiring mandatory sentence increases for those with certain serious and violent felony convictions on their records. In theory, these lengthy sentences should discourage people from committing these crimes and keep more dangerous criminals off the streets, though in practice, the effectiveness of this law is debatable.
One undoubtable effect of these laws is that they have resulted in the mass incarceration of Californians and the dramatic overcrowding of the state prison system. In fact, before the dramatic 2012 revision of the law, 25% of the state’s inmates were serving time related to their strikes.
How the Three Strikes Law Works
When defendants receive a second strike, they automatically have their sentence doubled. A defendant is required to serve at least 80% of the sentence before they are eligible for parole. For violent crimes, offenders must serve at least 85% of their sentence before being paroled. Defendants with two prior strikes will face a sentence of 25 years to life in prison (for a third serious or violent felony).
Sometimes juveniles can receive a strike under the law, but this policy only applies if the crime was a violent or serious felony committed when the minor was 16 or older. It is worth mentioning that a teen does not need to be charged in adult court to have a strike added to their record if they are convicted.
For crimes that occur out of the state, if the offense would have counted as a strike under California law, it still counts against you if you face charges for a future strikeable offense —even if the conviction was struck from your record under that state’s laws. But your three strikes defense attorney in San Diego may help you fight the application of the out-of-state conviction as a strike.
What Crimes Fall Under the Three Strikes Law?
One of the most common questions people ask about the three strikes law is “what crimes fall under the law?” These acts are known as “strikeable offenses” in the California state penal code. At its most basic, a strikeable act can be any violent or serious felony. That includes serious sex crimes such as child molestation or rape and crimes such as battery with serious bodily injury, robbery or kidnapping. Additionally, many non-violent crimes with a gang enhancement can also fall under the umbrella of this law and be considered a strike, such cases focused on vandalism or drug sales. Convictions for attempted crimes can also count as strikes if that type of offense would otherwise be a strikeable offense.
While the third strike must generally be a violent or serious felony as well, this is not the case if one of the first two strikes was for rape, murder, child molestation or a felony committed with a firearm. In these rare cases, the third strike can be for any felony.
Changes to the Three Strikes Law
When the law first took effect, anyone who received two strikes on their criminal record would automatically be sentenced to life imprisonment for any additional felony they committed, no matter how minor the crime. In fact, some people were sentenced to life after simply committing a non-violent grand theft offense.
In the 2012 election, voters overwhelmingly supported Prop 36 in California. This revision required the final strike to be a violent or serious crime unless one of a person’s first two strikes was for rape, murder, child molestation, or carrying a firearm while committing a felony.
This change also allowed those already convicted under the three strikes law to appeal for resentencing if their conviction would not meet the revised version of the law. Over 3,000 prison inmates were eligible to petition for a reduced sentence or to be released based on time served.
Can You Get 2 or 3 Strikes At Once?
No. While courts previously allowed offenders to be sentenced to multiple strikes for a single crime if they faced more than one strikeable offense, the California Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that only one strike could be applied for a single act.
If you previously received two strikes for crimes related to a single incident, a top violent crimes attorney can help ensure that the court only considers one of these strikes during your sentencing for a new offense.
Can You be Paroled if You are Convicted Under the Three Strikes Law?
Yes, depending on how many offenses are on your record and whether the offense is a violent felony. Violent felonies require you to serve 85% of your sentence before you can be paroled. For a second strike, you must serve 80% of your sentence before qualifying for parole, whereas you would usually only need to serve 50% of the sentence. After a third strike, you must serve 80% of the 25 years of a life sentence before becoming eligible for parole. Of course, the parole board can still deny parole, which is why conviction of a third strike could potentially leave you behind bars for life —this is why it’s known as a life sentence.
Can Strikes be Removed from Your Record?
Once a strike is on your record, it will stay there, but either a judge or DA can agree to strike a strike. If the judge does it, it is called a Romero Motion and requires extensive briefing by your three strikes lawyer. When determining whether to strike a strike, the judge will consider the specific circumstances, the rest of your criminal record, your age at the time of the offense, and more. Even if the judge ignores your prior strike, it will remain on your record and count against you if you are charged with any felony in the future.