Understanding California’s Three Strikes Law

California lawmakers recently proposed amendments to the state’s “Three Strikes and You’re Out Law.”

Under the state’s current law, criminal defendants who have been previously convicted of a serious felony can face incredibly harsh mandatory minimum sentences for any future convictions. In some cases, a conviction for a relatively minor felony (e.g., shoplifting, drug possession) could be punishable by 25 years to life in prison. The proposed changes would limit the situations when a life sentence without parole could be imposed and require courts to impose criminal penalties that actually fit the crime.

Three Strikes Sentencing Guideline

California introduced its Three Strikes Law in 1994 in an effort to deter criminal behavior. The law uses “strikes” to help courts implement the new sentencing guidelines. A criminal defendant gets a “strike” on his or her criminal record when they are convicted of a serious felony. Once a defendant has a strike on their record they will face mandatory minimum penalties for all future felony convictions.

What is a Serious Felony?

A criminal defendant will be exposed to mandatory minimum sentences if they have previously been convicted of a serious felony. Crimes that can and should be classified as a serious felony are listed in California Penal Code Section 1192.7 PC. Serious felonies in California include (but are not limited to):

  1. Murder,
  2. Attempted murder,
  3. Voluntary manslaughter,
  4. Rape,
  5. Arson,
  6. Mayhem,
  7. Kidnapping,
  8. Forcible sexual assault,
  9. Certain acts of theft,
  10. Lewd or lascivious acts on a child under the age of 14,
  11. A felony punishable by life in prison or death,
  12. A felony involving a firearm causing great bodily injury or death,
  13. Assault with a deadly weapon on law enforcement officer, and
  14. Assault with intent to commit rape or robbery.

Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Three Strikes Defendants

Strike One: Your first conviction for a serious felony will generate a strike on your criminal record. There is no mandatory minimum sentence for this first conviction. The traditional sentencing guidelines will be used to determine your criminal sentence.

Strike Two: If you have one strike on your record and are later convicted of any felony offense, you will automatically be required to serve twice the amount of time in prison that the new offense calls for. For example, let’s say you have a strike on your record and are subsequently convicted of residential burglary. Residential burglary is punishable by 2-6 years in prison. This second conviction will generate a second strike on your record and require that you serve 4-12 years in prison.

Strike Three: If you have two strikes on your record and are later convicted of any felony offense, you will automatically be required to serve 25 years to life in prison. This is true regardless of the seriousness of the felony and the criminal penalty that is traditionally imposed for that crime.

In summary, your first strike makes you vulnerable to harsh penalties, your second strike requires serving twice the amount of time behind bars that is usually required, and your third strike will automatically land you in prison for a minimum of 25 years.

Proposition 36

By 2012, the effects of California’s Three Strikes law were clear. The law itself was initially intended to deter criminal behavior. In practice, however, the sentencing guideline unjustly punished habitual criminal offenders for relatively minor crimes. In other words, the punishments no longer fit the crimes that were being committed. No one would suggest that a shoplifting or relatively minor drug conviction should send a person to prison for the rest of their life. However, if that person had previously been convicted of a serious felony, life in prison was a very true reality under the Three Strikes law.

In direct response to this inequitable system, California residents voted to pass Proposition 36. This ballot initiative amended the Three Strikes law to limit the situations in which a life sentence can be imposed Under the newly amended law, criminal defendants could only be sentenced to life in prison if they had two strikes on their criminal record and the third conviction was for a serious or violent felony. This would drastically reduce the number of criminal defendants who were unjustly punished for relatively minor drug and theft crimes.

The amendment also granted retroactive protections for criminal defendants who were serving unnecessarily harsh criminal sentences. A criminal defendant who had been sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for a non-violent or non-serious felony were given the opportunity to petition the court for a reduction in their sentence.

Recently Proposed Amendments

While Proposition 36 helped to reduce the situations when mandatory minimum penalties were imposed, the amendment still allowed criminal defendants to face unnecessarily harsh consequences for relatively minor crimes. The amendments that have been proposed so far in 2018 narrow the field of third strike offenses even more. If the newly proposed changes take effect, a criminal defendant can only be sentenced to life in prison without parole if their third criminal conviction is for:

  1. A violent felony,
  2. Rape,
  3. Child molestation,
  4. Murder, or
  5. Crime involving sex or a firearm.

This would take affirmative steps in preventing criminal defendants from being exposed to criminal penalties that do not fit the crime they have committed.

San Diego Criminal Defense Attorneys

If you are facing criminal charges for a strike offense it is important to speak with an experienced San Diego criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. At the Law Office of Vikas Bajaj, we understand that having a strike on your criminal record will expose you to serious and life-changing consequences. Our attorneys will aggressively fight to protect your future and get the best possible result in your case. Call us today to set up an initial consultation and learn more.

Law Office of Vikas Bajaj, APC
1230 Columbia Street Suite 565
San Diego, CA 92101


Three Strike Laws