Report Provides In-Depth Look at Three-Strikes Law in California

Berkeley, CA, August 30, 2022 — A new report released today by the nonpartisan California Policy Lab (CPL), provides an in-depth look at California’s Three-Strikes Law, which went into effect nearly 30 years ago. The law mandates longer prison sentences for people convicted of new felonies if they had a previous conviction for a serious or violent felony. For a second felony conviction, sentences are doubled in length, while a third serious or violent conviction results in the sentence being increased to at least 25 years to life.

“California’s Three-Strikes sentencing law stands apart from the sentencing practices of other states in both its punitiveness as well as its broad application,” explains co-author Steve Raphael, a public policy professor at UC Berkeley. “The law has lengthened the sentences of nearly 60,000 prison admissions since 2015 and affects the sentences of over a third of the currently incarcerated, many of whom were convicted of non-serious, non-violent offenses. Our report documents how frequently Three-Strikes sentencing is applied, how it lengthens sentences, and who is most impacted.”

CPL conducted this study through a research partnership with the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code, a state agency that studies and makes recommendations to improve California’s criminal legal system. The study shows that thousands of Californians saw their prison sentences lengthened because of this law, and more than one-third (36%) of people currently incarcerated in California are serving a longer sentence because of Three Strikes.

California is one of 24 states, along with the federal government, that enacted a version of Three-Strikes sentencing in the 1990s. However, California’s law contained some of the most severe sentence enhancements, applied to an especially broad group of felony offenses, and has been used more extensively in sentencing in criminal cases than in any other state. California’s law was also unique in mandating a doubled-sentence enhancement for any felony (for people with at least one prior serious or violent felony) regardless of whether or not the new felony was categorized as serious or violent. Nearly one-in-three (29%) of people serving doubled-sentence enhancements in January 2022 (about 8,100 individuals) had a strike enhancement for a non-serious, non-violent offense. However, in 2012, Proposition 36 narrowed the application of third-strike sentencing to convictions only for new serious or violent offenses, and also created a provision for possible resentencing of individuals who were serving third-strike sentences for non-serious, non-violent offenses committed prior to 2012.

The new report analyzed the frequency, length, and offense severity of Three Strike enhanced sentences for two groups of people: 1) people who have been admitted to state prison since 2015; and 2) people who were incarcerated as of January 2022. Judges and prosecutors have discretion in how they apply the law, and the report shows how Three Strikes has been implemented differently in counties across California as a result. The report also summarizes research measuring the impact of the law on crime rates and finds that crime rates fell even in states without Three-Strikes laws.

Key Findings
• In January of 2022 more than one in three incarcerated people (36%) had their sentences lengthened because of the Three Strikes law.
• Black Californians are disproportionately affected by Three Strikes, relative to the population of California and the prison population. They are heavily over-represented among people serving sentences with third-strike enhancements, and to a lesser degree, among those with a double-sentence enhancement.
• The implementation of Three Strikes does not explain statewide declines in crime over time.
• The implementation of the law varies widely among California counties- a difference that persists over time.
• While judges and prosecutors can lessen the effect of the enhancements, the impact on sentence length has been modest.
• Around 62% of people currently serving time on a third-strike enhancement (around 4,700 individuals) were convicted prior to 2006, reflecting the very long sentences associated with a third strike as well as the lower likelihood of receiving a third-strike enhancement since the passage of Proposition 36.
• People serving a third-strike enhancement tend to be older (with a median age of 56), and account for 37% of people serving sentences of 20 years or more.
• While recent reforms have restricted the application of third-strike enhancements for non-serious, non-violent offenses, doubled-sentence enhancements are still imposed for less serious offenses.
• Of people admitted to prison with a doubled-sentence enhancement, nearly 65% were for non-violent, non-serious offense(s).

Additional background
The research team used data provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

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