California Innocence Project

Three Strikes Law

California is one of many states in the nation with a “Three Strikes” law.  Rooted in baseball terminology, the intent of the law is to act as a deterrent to would-be repeat offenders who are considering whether to reoffend.  Ultimately, three strikes laws significantly increase the punishments received by offenders on their third offense if the first two convictions were for violent crimes.  Typically, the convicted offender will receive a mandatory sentence harsher than non-three strikes sentencing, often with the possibility of a life sentence.   

While on its face, most people might see this law and think it makes sense: someone has been convicted of two violent crimes, so if they commit another crime, maybe it is best that they get an increased sentence.  However, California has been one of many examples of why this policy just does not work.  Numerous studies have shown the Three Strikes law does not serve as a deterrent to most potential reoffenders, and the implementation of the law has meant a tremendous increase in the size of California’s prison population, resulting in millions of dollars going to prisons instead of vital institutions like schools, firefighters, and infrastructure.   Many also claim that the law has created massive health burden on the state that has to deal with the increasing costs of an aging prison population. 

Many proponents of Three Strikes claim that the law is responsible for the decrease in violent crimes in California.  However, a recent study has shown that California’s crime rate has decreased at a similar rate as many states across the country, including states that do not have Three Strikes laws.  If Three Strikes is not decreasing crime, the only real effect this law has is to increase the cost of our criminal justice system.  People are being given life sentences for minor crimes, crowding the prisons and making it difficult for these offenders to be granted parole. 

In 2012, California voters passed Proposition 36, which modified the state’s Three Strikes law.  Under the existing Three Strikes law, the third strike can be a violent or non-violent felony.   Now, the maximum sentence can only be imposed when the new felony conviction is "serious or violent,'' or for a minor felony crime if the perpetrator is a murderer, rapist or child molester.   The proposition passed by a large margin with 68% of the voters voting yes.  After its passage, some inmates sentenced under the old law could ask the court to modify their sentence under the new law.  In addition, supporters say that the state could save up to $90 million with the new provisions.  Kenneth Corley from San Diego was the first inmate to be resentenced and released under Prop. 36. 

California Innocence Project client Daniel Larsen was convicted for possession of a concealed weapon in 1999.  Because it was his third strike, he was sentenced to 28 years to life in prison.  In 2010, however, Larsen was found to be innocent of this crime, and a federal judge reversed his conviction.  Astoundingly, Larsen spent almost three years in prison before a federal judege ordered his release pending appeal.  Attorney General Kamala Harris has appealed Larsen’s exoneration on a technicality – because she insists he missed a filing deadline to challenge the conviction. 

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