Proposition 36 Reverses Course on California’s Three Strikes Law

After nearly two decades with some of the nation’s toughest criminal sentencing laws, California residents voted in the fall of 2012 to ease the impact of California’s Three Strikes Law by passing Proposition 36. The change commits people convicted of a third felony to life imprisonment in more limited circumstances than before, and it also provides some people who are currently incarcerated under the law with the opportunity to seek relief from a life sentence.

California’s Three Strikes Law

California’s Three Strikes Law was enacted in 1994 and has had a significant impact on the state’s criminal justice system ever since. Under the law, anyone convicted of three felony offenses could be sentenced to life in prison for the third offense, regardless of its severity. Although judges had the discretion to “strike” the third strike and avoid a potentially disproportionate punishment, the law created some surprisingly harsh results, such as the widely publicized cases of individuals receiving life sentences for stealing a pair of socks or forging a check for $146, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

After almost 20 years with the Three Strikes Law in place, California’s prison population has expanded exponentially, so much so that the state now spends more money on its prisons than higher education, according to the Huffington Post. Further, the state is currently working to comply with a federal court order demanding that it reduce its prison population to alleviate crowded conditions that were ruled inhumane and improper.

Proposition 36

Amid severe state budget shortfalls and a growing awareness of the problems associated with a simply tough-on-crime approach, Proposition 36 was introduced to revise the Three Strikes Law. The measure passed, with 68.6 percent of voters in favor and 31.4 percent opposed, and now the Three Strikes Law can be used to impose a life sentence in one of two situations. First, a life sentence may be imposed when the third felony is serious or violent in nature. Second, life imprisonment may be imposed for a third felony if the individual has a prior conviction for murder, rape or child molestation.

In addition, Proposition 36 contained a provision that allows an estimated 3,000 individuals sentenced to life imprisonment under the old Three Strikes Law to petition a judge for early release or a shorter sentence. ABC News reports that these hearings are taking place and some carefully selected individuals – who are deemed not to pose a threat to public safety – may be released soon.

A felony conviction can carry significant consequences, and any criminal charges should be taken seriously. If you have been arrested on suspicion of committing a crime in California, contact a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney to begin your defense.