Three Strikes Laws in the State of California
In the mid-nineties, state legislatures began passing statutes mandating long periods of imprisonment for persons convicted of a felony on three (or more) separate occasions. The term “three strikes” is borrowed from baseball and is generally colloquial in its usage, as such statutes are most often known officially as mandatory sentencing laws or some variant thereof. The underlying philosophy of these laws is that any person who commits more than two felonies can justifiably be considered incorrigible and chronically criminal, and that permanent imprisonment is then mandated for the safety of society.
The History of Three Strikes Laws in California
California actually enacted two distinct three strikes laws. The legislature enacted its first three strikes law in March of 1994. In November of the same year, California voters approved Proposition 184, which codified nearly the entirety of the original law the legislature had rushed into being. The two schemes are almost identical, except that each has a list of felonies which are designated as serious or violent, and there are some minor differences between the two lists.
Criticism of Three Strikes Laws
Some critics have argued that three-strikes laws violate the Double Jeopardy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, though few judges take this argument seriously. In the vast majority of U.S. courts, it is generally accepted that double jeopardy is not an issue because the defendant is not being retried for the same set of facts at the heart of his or her previous conviction(s). According to judicial interpretation, a person’s previous convictions are merely being used as further evidence of the defendant’s incorrigible character in order to enhance the sentence for the third conviction.
Where Things Stand Today
On November 2, 2004, California voters rejected an amendment that would have required the third felony to be either “violent” and/or “serious” in order to result in a 25-years-to-life sentence. Voters have passed a more recent proposition that now permits virtually any felony to be enhanced with one strike, but in many cases limits those cases that can result in a 25-years-to-life sentence. Nevertheless, efforts to reform the three strikes laws continue throughout the state.