Is California’s Three Strikes Law Due for a Change Up?

Stanford University lawyers gear up with a political consultant to pitch a reform initiative for one of the harshest sentencing laws in the nation.
by | June 17, 2011 AT 3:00 PM

A coalition wants to play hardball with California’s infamous Three Strikes law.

With Stanford University lawyers leading the charge and a political consultant directing the campaign, the group is aiming to put an initiative on the November 2012 ballot to reform the harshest such sentencing law in the nation, the San Jose Mercury News reports. Passed in 1994, the law requires a 25 year-to-life sentence upon a third felony conviction.

But what is a “felony conviction”? That answer widely varies, which can lead to life sentences for crimes considered not serious.

This reform push comes on the heels of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that California has to reduce its prison population ASAP to relieve overcrowding, a nightmare which has resulted from a string of poor political decisions, including "the passage of harsh mandatory minimum and three-strikes laws.'' Since 1994, the courts have sent more than 80,000 "second-strikers" and 7,500 "third-strikers" to state prison, according to the state Legislative Analyst's Office. Per the Mercury News:

The language of the new initiative is still being worked out, but at the very least it would limit felonies that trigger the "third" strike to violent or serious crimes. In late 2004, about 3,500 -- or just less than half of the third-strikers in prison -- had not committed a serious or violent crime.

Under the existing law, people have received life sentences for such crimes as stealing a pair of socks, attempting to break into a soup kitchen to get something to eat and forging a check for $146 at Nordstrom.

Proponents note that the provision allowing prosecutors to charge any felony as a third strike is the harshest of some 24 similar laws in the nation, and contend it is unjust and a waste of taxpayer dollars. Supporters argue the law has reduced crime and kept the streets safer.

The initiative could gain large public support. Nearly three out of four California voters want to revamp the sentencing law and allow judges and juries more discretion on third strikes, a new Field Poll shows. According to most of the people surveyed, prison overcrowding is a serious issue, and 74 percent believe a change in the three-strikes law could help.

Support for Gov. Jerry Brown’s “realignment plan” to shift lower-risk inmates from prisons to county jails wasn’t as strong. Only 51 percent support the plan; 37 percent do not.  Less than half would support an extension of temporary tax increases to pay for it, according to the poll.

"The voters are not willing to pay the piper on this," Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo told the Sacramento Bee. "Voters really are less supportive of the prisons and the budgets that are given to the prisons. They'd much rather fund the K-12 schools or higher education or health care."

This idea to reform the three-strikes law isn’t unfamiliar to Brown. Back in 2004, another Field Poll found strong support for modifying the law, but at the last minute, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brown, the mayor of Oakland at the time, shot it down.